MAC: Mines and Communities

A boot in both camps: Australian government chief scientist also works for Rio Tinto

Published by MAC on 2003-12-09

A boot in both camps: Australian government chief scientist also works for Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto's chief technologist, Dr Robin Batterham, is at the centre of growing concern in Australia about his dual roles - for he's also the government's chief scientific adviser. Some months back Rio Tinto was awarded an Aus$35 million loan by the government, to investigate the feasibility of pumping carbon dioxide underground, instead of cutting down on primary CO2 emissions. It's not a new idea - the Norwegian government has been toying with a similar scheme and failed to reach a conclusion about its feasibility; nor is the concept of burying waste "out of site and mind" - Australia's scientists were experimenting with the underground burial of vitrified nuclear wastes back in the 1970s.

The Australian opposition is now calling for Batterham to present himself before a commission of inquiry into this apparent "conflict of interest". We say "apparent" because the current government backs the coal industry and has refused to sign onto the Kyoto Treaty, while Rio Tinto is one of the world's biggest miners of the black stuff.

The story broke on ABC's "7.30 Report" programme on December 8th and was followed by further probing on the company's the next day.

"Rio Tinto's undue influence on government policy"

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now to global warming and an environmental debate that's about to generate more heat.

While Australia and the United States are standing firm on their refusal to sign up to the Kyoto protocols on greenhouse gas emissions, both nations are now considering a high-tech solution being touted by the coal industry.

It's an ambitious plan to channel carbon dioxide -- the main gas linked to global warming, and a major by-product of burning coal -- under the ground, rather than into the atmosphere.

The Government has already poured millions of dollars of public money into the concept -- called geo-sequestration.

But the renewable energy industry is raising questions about the advice being given by the Government's chief scientific advisor, Dr Robin Batterham -- who also serves on the board of minerals and energy multi-national Rio Tinto.

Andrew Fowler from the ABC's investigative unit reports.

ANDREW FOWLER: Nestled on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, the Mount Piper power station is nowhere near as green as its surroundings.

Though it supplies less than 5 per cent of NSW's power needs, it pumps out 24,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.

It's just one of dozens of coal-fired power generators across Australia, pouring tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

The vexed question of what to do about carbon emissions has given a prominent role to Australia's chief scientist, Dr Robin Batterham.

His job is to advise the Prime Minister on science policy.

Sometimes that takes him to contentious territory.

Dr Batterham is paid a fat director's salary by the Australian resources and energy giant, Rio Tinto.

Those who support renewable energy say it places him in a questionable position.

RIC BRAZZLE, BUSINESS COUNCIL FOR SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIES: There's nothing that could prevent you from doing two jobs at one time, but there's the potential for conflict of interest.

And the potential for conflict of interest is an issue that needs to be managed.

And if there is a potential for conflict of interest, then there's a risk that the broader community and a lot of other stakeholder groups will question any positions that are put by the chief scientist.

ANDREW FOWLER: Whatever the Government decides on carbon policy will have an impact on Rio Tinto, a huge exporter of coal and user of electricity produced by coal-fired power stations.

For years, the coal industry has been looking to clean up its image as a polluter.

Now it's come up with a novel answer.

Instead of pumping carbon dioxide into the air, the plan now is to return it to the ground.

DR PETER COOK, CO-OPERATIVE RESEARCH CENTRE: Very often the question arises -- how much does it cost to do this?

ANDREW FOWLER: Geologist Dr Peter Cook is trying to turn the theory into practice.

It's called geosequestration.

DR PETER COOK: Geosequestration is about capturing CO2 -- carbon dioxide -- and then putting it into the ground at a depth of about 800 to 1,000 metres where it can be stored safely and securely for hundreds of thousands of years and longer.

ANDREW FOWLER: The push to keep coal king is being led by the US.

GEORGE W BUSH, US PRESIDENT: There's a spirit of cooperation on global warming and on climate change.

ANDREW FOWLER: It's spending US$1 billion on a pilot project to test the concept of storing carbon dioxide in the ground.

The Federal Government won't say how much it's going to contribute to its own research.

IAN MCFARLANE, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY & RESOURCES: Well, we are currently considering how much money we put into that area and that is the subject of some discussions that are going on within government.

ANDREW FOWLER: The figure of $200 million has been put forward.

IAN MCFARLANE: Well, I'm not going to speculate on the figure, but it won't be as much as the Americans, which is so why it's so important that we collaborate our technology with their technology and ride on the back, so to speak.

ANDREW FOWLER: While the renewable energy industry has questioned the huge investment in unproven technology, Dr Batterham appeared to have few doubts.

In November last year, he made a presentation to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, PMSEIC, on the best way to deal with carbon dioxide.

It came down heavily in favour of geosequestration.

By the middle of this year, the renewable energy industries were giving up hope.

Dr Batterham recommended a national program to demonstrate that geosequestration could work.

It got the Prime Minister's support.

KEITH TARLO, INSTITUTE FOR SUSTAINABLE ENERGY, UTS: The Prime Minister would see it as a way of making him look like he's solving the climate change problem, while solving the coal industry's problem of facing oblivion.

IAN MCFARLANE: Any government, if it were responsible, would obviously invest in ensuring that its resource value increased.

Our involvement in geosequestration is part of that investment in our resources.

ANDREW FOWLER: Last month, Dr Batterham, whose part-time job as Australia's chief scientist pays $90,000 a year, joked about the potential for his job at Rio to cause a conflict of interest.

According to Labor in the Senate, Rio possibly pays him $700,000 a year.

ROBIN BATTERHAM, CHIEF SCIENTIST: If I dared to say something like, "Notice sequestration is on the list", I would be accused of having bias, I suspect, or mixing my jobs up.

By the way, I'm speaking as chief scientist today, to be clear on it.

ANDREW FOWLER: But Dr Batterham's ability to separate his two jobs may not be as easy as he would like the public to believe.

Hi, Dr Batterham, Andrew Fowler from the ABC.

How are you?


ANDREW FOWLER: I was interested in your comments about people suggesting you might muddle up your relationship between Rio Tinto and your role as chief scientist.

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: The only comment I would make is you heard the chief scientist talking today.

The two roles are quite distinct and kept very clear.

ANDREW FOWLER: But given that if you are speaking with the PM, you might know something which is detrimental about Rio Tinto, how do you put that to one side?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: I think that's a hypothetical question.

ANDREW FOWLER: It's never happened to you?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: I am not conversant with all that is going on in Australian science, nor would I claim to be.

Nor would I claim to be in any company in Australia, including Rio Tinto.

ANDREW FOWLER: But the chief scientist is conversant about the internal workings of Rio Tinto.

Apart from his current board position with the company, three years ago he was a director of the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter, Comalco, and at that time he signed an agreement on behalf of Rio Tinto with the US company Maxygen.

It was an agreement which dealt directly with carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse.

The agreement involved a particular technology for carbon sequestration.

It involves biologically manipulating plants and algae to make them draw in more carbon dioxide through their leaves.

KEITH TARLO: The plants suck up CO2 in a much more rapid way than any normal plant can and then you presumably bury the algae somewhere to keep it out of the atmosphere.

ANDREW FOWLER: But as chief scientist you also signed a document back in the year 2000 with a company called Maxygen and you were representing Rio Tinto then, weren't you?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: I did not sign a document as chief scientist with Maxygen.

Get your facts right.

ANDREW FOWLER: You signed as a member of Rio Tinto, as an employee of Rio Tinto?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: There is no contract that I am aware of between Maxygen and the Australian Government, nor have I had any dealings with that company as chief scientist.

ANDREW FOWLER: But you have as an employee of Rio Tinto?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: That would be Rio Tinto business and, as such, is Rio Tinto business.

ANDREW FOWLER: But that Rio Tinto business with Maxygen is directly linked to government policy on carbon emissions.

Shortly after Dr Batterham signed the deal, the Government handed over a $35 million interest-free loan to the Rio Tinto Foundation.

Part of it was used for its work with Maxygen.

IAN MCFARLANE: Well, I don't believe that Robin Batterham takes information that he gains within the discussions that he has with government outside the office.

ANDREW FOWLER: But Maxygen was involved in looking at a way to deal with carbon emission problems -- creating plants that would be used in geosequestration.

IAN MCFARLANE: There are a whole range of companies involved in geosequestration.

ANDREW FOWLER: But he signed that when he was the chief scientist, also working for Rio Tinto.

IAN MCFARLANE: I don't believe that Robin Batterham has a conflict of interest.

ANDREW FOWLER: It's not just the public money that's being poured into Rio Tinto-backed deals that raises questions.

The technology for carbon dioxide geosequestration is largely untested and much more costly than has been previously admitted.

DR PETER COOK: We've done a lot of work on this in Australia and we know that in many areas it is likely that you will be able to store that CO2 in the ground for $10 a tonne or less.

We've got very good figures available on that.

ANDREW FOWLER: Does that include the cost of capturing the CO2 as well?

DR PETER COOK: Once you start looking at the cost of capturing CO2 at the moment, the costs come up.

If we say the range is $20 to $50 or $60 a tonne -- quite high.

ANDREW FOWLER: Yet Dr Batterham has repeatedly cited a figure of $10 a tonne as the full cost of taking carbon dioxide out of coal, capturing it and burying it in the ground.

Dr Batterham attributed the figure to unpublished data by Roam Consulting, a Brisbane-based consultancy group.

You used a figure of $10 a tonne in relation to geosequestration.

Where did that figure come from?

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: You should check what Senator Brown said in the Senate.

ANDREW FOWLER: Instead of answering the question, Dr Batterham referred to comments made by Greens leader Senator Bob Brown.

I'm asking you the question.

I'm asking you the question about where the figure came from.

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: I am suggesting -- you are looking for public record.

I am suggesting look in 'Hansard'.

ANDREW FOWLER: No, I am asking you the question about where the figure came from.

'Unpublished data', it said.

Roam Consulting say that they didn't provide that figure.

DR ROBIN BATTERHAM: You have seen plenty of figures.

ANDREW FOWLER: Again, Dr Batterham declined to directly answer.

But Roam Consulting said it had no idea why its name was associated with the $10-a-tonne figure.

According to an answer to a parliamentary question on notice by Senator Brown, the supplier was Rio Tinto.

If there is a question of Rio Tinto's ability to influence government policy, it can only be made more pointed by the PM's family connection.

Lyall Howard, John Howard's nephew, is head of Rio Tinto's government relations -- in other words, its chief lobbyist.

Lyall Howard has been hard at work for Rio Tinto since earlier this year.

He declined to comment about his potential to influence government policy.

IAN MCFARLANE: Can I assure you that Lyall Howard is someone who I have a great deal of confidence in in terms of his operation.

In no way does he influence my decisions in terms of the particular issues that you have raised already.

ANDREW FOWLER: In the next few months, the Federal Government is expected to make a major policy announcement on greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter what the science says, if the policy benefits the mining companies to the detriment of renewable resources, there will be questions over whether Rio Tinto has had undue influence on government policy.

7.30 Report. 8/12/03

[This is the print version of story]

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