activism climate change energy

Are Greenpeace about to buy a coal mine?

coalThis isn’t something I’ve heard much about from Greenpeace yet, presumably because it’s happening in their Swedish office, but there’s been an odd little story simmering away over the last month: Greenpeace have been debating whether or not to move into coal.

Swedish energy company Vattenfall AB is one of the first energy companies to make a move out of coal (more on that soon). In their efforts to refocus on renewable energy, they’ve announced plans to sell off their dirtiest assets, including coal mines and four coal power stations in Germany. Greenpeace would like to buy them, and then wind them up, obviously.

Greenpeace has a couple of points to make. First, we know that to protect the climate, coal needs to stay in the ground. Owning that coal may be the best way to make sure it never gets burnt. Second, the organisation is calling out the idea that countries can decarbonise without considering the emissions overseas that they are responsible for. Vattenfall is state owned, so the Swedish government can’t preach a green future without taking responsibility for its activities in Germany. Neighbouring Norway is a major culprit here too, being a leader in renewable energy and also an exporter or oil and gas.

So one might assume that Greenpeace throwing their hat in the ring is a way of raising some questions and getting attention, despite talk of crowdfunding the estimated $2-3 billion required. Still, they were serious enough to put in a genuine bid a couple of weeks later. It’s essentially an offer to take the coal assets off Vattenfall’s hands, more than anything else. They argue that if social and environmental costs are added, the mines and power stations cannot run at profit and are a liability. “The cost for society is many times higher than the profit any operator could make” says Annika Jacobson, head of Greenpeace Sweden.

Instead, Greenpeace would hold the mines in a dedicated trust, decommissioning the power stations and overseeing the closure and ecological restoration of the coal mining sites.

Will they win? Unlikely – those social and environmental costs don’t yet have to be paid by the owners of the assets, and there are a couple of other bidders. Germany’s coal mines barely break even and only persist because, to its shame, Germany continues to subsidise them. More importantly, they are a big source of employment, and Greenpeace’s rival bidders know they can play the ‘protecting jobs’ card.

At this stage I doubt we’ll get to see a Greenpeace owned coal mine any time soon – but it’s an interesting idea. There are charities like the World Land Trust who buy up tracts of forest in order to keep them safe. Owning an acre of rainforest is a more appealing prospect that owning a share of derelict mine, but there might be more takers than you think. Maybe its time for a similar move into fossil fuels.

11 comments

  1. This is a PR stunt. There are three reasons why Greenpeace are not serious about this.

    Firstly the power stations will have supply contracts with the distribution companies. Suddenly close then down and you will have to pay huge compensation.

    Secondly under German law you have to have a good reason to lay off staff. Because we want to close down a profitable business is not one so the redundancy payments are almost unlimited.

    Thirdly the site owner is liable for the clean up costs which are to a very high and expensive standard in Germany (and of course Greenpeace support that).

    So the cost of this would be a factor of 10 higher than the purchase price. Now I would enjoy Greenpeace going bust given how sanctimonious and anti science they are but I guess you wouldn’t.

    1. Yes it is a PR stunt, and an effective one. It’s raised the issue of Germany’s coal subsidies and the Swedish government’s complicity very nicely. Job done.

      There’s no shame in a good PR stunt, and when Greenpeace get this right, they are among the best in the business. The reason I think it’s worth talking about it that there is also the grain of real idea there, and perhaps Greenpeace surprised themselves with that. I certainly didn’t expect them to put in an actual bid, but they did. It included, incidentally, provisions for the longer term and specifically said that things couldn’t just be switched off. It also had a funding model for decommissioning and clean-up that did not involve Greenpeace putting itself on the hook.

      That bid opened up an alternative to Vattenfall – perhaps, if you can allow the thought, it doesn’t have to be sold as a going concern. Perhaps the Swedish government could take responsibility for keeping that coal in the ground. A radical notion, and one well worth raising, even in Greenpeace are hardly set up to execute that solution.

      Moot point now anyway. I read this morning that their bid has been barred from consideration by Citigroup, who are handling the sale.

      1. While being a state owned company the directors of Vattenfall might not have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, if they didn’t sell it as a going concern they would have to explain to Swedish taxpayers why they should get less for their assets than they could.

        I think Greenpeace should tread carefully in their stunts. Ever since Brent Spar they have been exposed as liars who believe the morally dubious idea that the ends justifies the means.

        Given that one of the reasons Germany is burning so much dirty coal is that their nuclear power stations are being phased out after protests by groups including Greenpeace then the idea that Greenpeace and its supporters would actually be putting their hands in their pockets to pay for what they want seemed a step forward. But no, the aim is to get taxpayers to stump up.

        Greenpeace really should start to think through their campaigns, but sadly they are afflicted with the virtue signalling of the supporters of so much the the environmental and left wing movement. Damn the consequences, I’ve shown I care!

        1. Brent Spar was 20 years ago wasn’t it? I’d prefer to judge them on their current projects myself. To be honest, I don’t like a lot of the Greenpeace rhetoric, especially on GM and on nuclear. They’ve been caught out as hypocrites a few times and done some very silly things, which doesn’t help. But that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of good ideas.

          I’m not a Greenpeace supporter, but I’ll write about interesting ideas when I come across them. I don’t have to agree with everything an organisation has ever done in its history.

          And the proposal did include asking supporters to reach into their pockets and help to pay for decommissioning, by the way. It just didn’t make Greenpeace solely accountable. That would defeat the object of getting the Swedish government to take responsibility.

          Sure, Vattenfall would have to explain themselves to the taxpayers. They would do that by saying that they’d taken the 21st century decision to leave the coal in the ground.

  2. It turns out that Greenpeace were never offering to put their hands in their pockets, offering nothing and expecting the Swedish & German taxpayers to pick up the clean up bills. Someone else can pay for their virtue.

    http://www.thelocal.se/20151102/greenpeace-barred-from-vattenfall-brown-coal-bid

    So just when did they ask supporters to pay for decommissioning? Could that be another lie? This underlines my point; they lie and exaggerate. They were never serious, putting a bid in of zero is not serious. And now they have you defending their lies.

    This can work against them. In Brazil when they tried to run a campaign against nuclear power, the nuclear industry fought back, highlighting their lies and manipulations and it was Greenpeace who lost support and harmed the wider conservation movement there.

    Getting those who want to stop something harmful to put their money where their mouths are is a good idea and to be applauded, but it gets discredited by falsehoods. Rather than indulge Greenpeace the eco-movement should be a critical friend.

    1. You don’t like Greenpeace, I get it. No need to start accusing me of defending lies. I read their comments about crowdfunding on Bloomberg a month ago when I first picked up the story. You’ll notice I didn’t bother to write about it at that point, and only thought it was worth mentioning when they came good on their word and formally put themselves forward.

      So far everything you’ve listed a bunch of objections that Greenpeace have considered and commented on already, or just accused them of lying without bothering to look into it. It says a lot more about your own prejudices than Greenpeace’s failings to be honest.

      1. They put in a bid of zero. You didn’t comment on that. They floated the idea of crowdfunding but push came to shove they didn’t offer a penny of their own money. Yet you reported they had.

        If you had reported on their original press release of 6 Oct you would have been right, but you pride yourself on waiting when if you had actually understood the bid of 2 Nov you would have seen the crowdfunding idea was either a faint or abandoned.

        You just don’t think critically enough and you end up showing yourself up.

        Just five minutes research on Google and I came up with 4 new cases of Greenpeace lying that I didn’t know about. But hey, their intentions are good and the ends justify the means.

        1. I’m not interested in your trial by search engine. I’m well aware of their shortcomings and could tell you in some detail why I’m not a supporter, if I were so inclined.

          I’ve read the post again. I said there was talk of crowdfunding, which there was. (It’s pretty obvious you can’t crowdfund 2 billion, so I’m under no illusions here.) I said it was an offer to take the mines off their hands rather than buy them. I’m quite happy with my take on the issue.

          You’re quite determined to find evidence of wrongdoing on my part and on Greenpeace’s. Carry on. You’ll be doing so without me, and I’m happy to leave future readers to draw their own conclusions regardless of what you dredge up in the final word you shall no doubt want.

  3. This is a very interesting story… As you say it’s unlikely to actually happen, but it’s an intriguing prospect, and one I haven’t considered. Funding would obviously be a big issue, but potentially it could be a strategy for large environmental organisations (and who knows, maybe even green-leaning companies with a conscience) to buy up fossil fuel assets to ensure they aren’t burnt. Hmm…

    1. Yes, it’s very easy for green groups to stand on the sidelines and shout that we don’t want coal, but for places that still have mines, that means jobs lost, decommissioning and clean-up with no immediate local benefits. That’s why the Greenpeace offer is interesting, because it’s a constructive suggestion, an offer to actually help organise the winding up of coal in Germany. So I hope that it gets talked about a little more.

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