MAC: Mines and Communities

Australian Government Chief Scientist Also Top Mining Executive

Published by MAC on 2004-08-09

Government Chief Scientist Also Top Mining Executive

Bob Burton, IPS

August 9 2004

Canberra - The revelations of a recent Senate report might shock many Australians. Little do they realise that the country's chief scientist, advising the government on major environmental issues such as greenhouse policy and renewable energy strategy, is also the research head of mining giant Rio Tinto.

On the 35th floor of the massive office complex at 55 Collins Street in Melbourne is the office of Robin Batterham, who works two days a week as Australia's chief scientist.

The other three days a week Batterham often works from the same office, located in the headquarters of global mining company Rio Tinto, as its chief technologist.

A Senate committee report, tabled late last week and which was obtained by IPS, found that Batterham performing the dual roles from the one office was symptomatic of the potential conflict of interest created when the conservative Howard government reduced the position to part-time status in 1996.

Batterham was appointed, while still a Rio Tinto executive, in May 1999.

The ''potential and apparent conflicts of interest which arise from Batterham's dual part-time roles are as damaging to the Office of the Chief Scientist as any real conflict of interest,'' the majority of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee of the Senate found.

''They erode public confidence in the political and administrative process and call into question the integrity of high level scientific advice provided to government,'' the committee reported.

''The public interest is not being served as long as the perception of a conflict of interest remains and is not properly managed,'' added the committee.

The majority of the committee members recommended that the position be made a full time appointment.

Rio Tinto is one of the world's largest mining and mineral processing companies with interests in 40 countries spanning from uranium and coal mining to the smelting of aluminium.

In the Asia-Pacific region the company has often been embroiled in controversy from its Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea, its interest in the Freeport copper and gold mine in the Indonesian province of Papua or, in the 1980s, its strident opposition to land rights for Australian Aboriginal people.

With interests in 13 major coal projects around the world and as one of the largest players in the energy intensive aluminium smelting industry, Rio Tinto views climate change policy as one area of policy development that could have a major adverse impact on its business interests.

In a background paper on Batterham's role, Australian Greens Sen. Bob Brown estimates that based on 2002 figures, Rio Tinto companies alone are responsible for approximately five percent of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

The inquiry was called earlier this year after Sen. Brown revealed that Batterham had played a crucial role in providing the Australian government with internal Rio Tinto data that estimated the cost of geo-sequestration of greenhouse gases underground would be low.

The notional technology, promoted by the mining and energy industries as an alternative to reducing reliance on fossil fuel energy sources, is to capture greenhouse gas emissions from power stations and pump them into underground reservoirs.

The Rio Tinto estimate was that geo-sequestration could cost only seven U.S. dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide while other public estimates four to ten time higher.

''The committee was unable to find anybody else on the planet who had such low costings for the potential of geo- sequestration,'' Brown told the Senate.

The Australian government has refused to ratify the Kyoto climate change protocol, despite being one of only two countries allowed to increase greenhouse gas emissions. While other developed countries agreed to adopt a cut of six percent over the 1990 baseline year, Australia's tough negotiating resulted in a target increase of eight percent.

Speaking in the Senate after the report was tabled, Brown pointed out that the committee had found that on one occasion Batterham had presented unpublished data from a study commissioned by Rio Tinto to a meeting of Commonwealth and State energy ministers.

Batterham, he said, ''failed to declare the source of that information. That created the appearance of a real conflict of interest.''

The same data, which argued that the cost of geo- sequestration was lower than renewable energy sources, was subsequently used in a high-level advisory committee report to the prime minister.

While the committee cleared Batterham of any role in preparing or presenting the report, it noted that the controversy ''contributed to a perception of conflict of interest which risks eroding public confidence in the independence of advice provided to government by the chief scientist.''

Government senators on the committee dismissed the suggestion that Batterham's dual roles were cause for concern. "Government senators do not accept that there is a conflict of duties," they wrote in a dissenting report.

''There is no evidence that Batterham has single-mindedly promoted geo-sequestration at the expense of other greenhouse reduction strategies. Even if he had done so, Batterham has no decision-making role,'' they argued.

The Minister for Science Peter McGauren dismissed the report findings stating ''there is no actual conflict arising from the part- time appointment of the chief scientist.''

Greenpeace, which made a submission to the inquiry, argues Batterham has a clear conflict of interest. ''The policies that Batterham advocates the Commonwealth government implement would significantly favour coal companies, such as Rio Tinto, his primary employer.''

Brown told the Senate that while the Australian government has slashed government funding for renewable energy technology such as research and development of solar energy, Rio Tinto had been showered with government funds.

''When we look at Rio Tinto, the company for which the chief scientist has been chief technologist since his appointment in 1999, we find that some 340 million Australian dollars (238 million U.S. dollars) in direct, indirect or enhancing grants has gone to that corporation,'' he said.

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