Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Ronald Mason | Why the coal shoulder?

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 8:00 AM

"The Indonesian export ban has caused a scramble for bauxite resources, especially among Chinese alumina and aluminium producers. In their pursuit of new markets, Chinese firms have often promised investment in host countries' processing capacity in return for long-term contracts to mine raw ore. This brief assessed the credibility of these promises with respect to three countries with large bauxite export potential: Guinea, Jamaica and Vietnam.

"The brief assesses downstream development potential in these three countries on the basis of both practical consideration, including the quality of energy infrastructure, and political concerns. It concludes:

1. Chinese promises to develop local processing capacity are most credible in Vietnam, but complicated by increasingly icy bilateral relations between the Vietnamese and Chinese governments; and 2. the promises are less credible in the cases of Guinea and Jamaica for issues related to host-country infrastructure, reliance on imported energy, and, in the case of Jamaica, democratic political institutions, its comparatively strong civil society, and location in the Caribbean Basin." (Assessment carried out by Cullen Hendrix from the Korbel School of International Studies and Peterson Institute for International Economics)

 

DENYING THE POOR MAJORITY

 

Jamaica combines the problems of weak current electricity capacity and reliance on imported energy within a political context that might give Chinese firms pause. Knowing this, the so-called articulate minority in Jamaica is hell-bent on being an obstacle to this potential investment. Our civil society is not advocating for the interest of the greater good. There's no insistence on the application of the most efficient technology; only a drive to keep the poor black majority of this country poor.

We - and yes, I am privileged - have denied the poor black majority of education, health care and granted them few opportunities based on their brawn and subservience. Nothing qualifies as 'sustainable development' except the plantation. Years ago, a member of the elite, upon visiting an inner-city community, expressed surprise that Jamaicans lived in these appallingly squalid conditions. The people still do live in such conditions. They are still educationally marginalised despite 60 years of access to secondary-school education.

Where the majority are denied the basics for self-actualisation, crime will become a plague. Domestic violence manifests itself because of frustration. We may yet repeat 1865. The economy must be allowed to grow to offer hope. Does this require sacrifice? Most definitely, but with persons determined to sacrifice being few and far between, the articulate minority will have an unending pool of subservient persons at their beck and call, doing fetch and cleaning duties. Whether they are located in the homes or the hotels, the 'jobs' remain the same.

There is hope and optimism in the case at hand. The Observer published a column titled 'The JLP supports coal energy' (Tuesday, May 6, 2014). Andrew Holness says the Opposition sees the use of coal as a cost-reducing energy option, but that the party would not support its use in protected areas, like the Goat Islands. Mr Holness went on to say, "The Government can use coal for bauxite, or for cement or for other heavy industries, and it could charge a small tax to mitigate against environment problems. But, our position is that we would not be in favour of coal on the Goat Islands."

In February 2014, then Transport and Works Minister Dr Omar Davies told the House of Representatives that China Harbour Engineering Company wished to construct a coal-fired plant to generate power for its projected $1.5-billion port project on the Goat Islands. He said the Chinese company made the decision because of the prevailing high electricity rates for fossil-fuel energy used in Jamaica. More recently, Phillip Paulwell, the former minister of science, technology, energy and mining, responding to questions from the then Opposition in the House of Representatives, said a debate is necessary in Parliament on the issue of a cheaper energy alternative. "And a serious debate that we have to commence and sign off on this year is the energy alternative that we have to agree on, and we have to talk about coal," Paulwell said.

 

MITIGATING THE EFFECTS

 

Paulwell said the bauxite/alumina industry could not rely on the grid, nor gas, as what it really needed was steam, which is where coal has an advantage. He said the Government will have to allow the companies to generate their own energy, utilising coal as part of the mix.

Holness said that while the Jamaica Labour Party is concerned about the environmental impact, it accepts that coal is part of the energy mix, and there are ways to mitigate the effect through taxation. Holness said the Government should be proactive and designate where coal can be used, and how its use could be taxed to fund mitigation.

But we have to look at the options, and coal provides an option. I am not saying it should dominate our fuel costs, but it does provide a real chance. Once the project is economically viable, coal can be used, but you draw some red lines in terms of the environment.

So there are some areas we would protect. For example, we wouldn't want to have coal plants located in environmentally sensitive location, or sensitive industries. Horace Chang has said while clean coal is expensive, the issue is a 'mitigation', as a tax on energy could help to ensure that protected areas are properly funded. The politicians on both sides have answered the call. So must we.

- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and nationsagenda@gmail.com.