Stick Together or Lose the Fight, Aussie Coal Boss Warns Industry
October 5, 2020 - Running the World Coal Association must be one of the toughest gigs in the resources universe right now. Investors and banks are dumping coal, big miners are cutting back on it, Western governments are phasing it out. How do you sell the coal story to a sceptical world?
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, an Australian has put her hand up for the job. Michelle Manook left an executive post at Orica in Perth last year, moving to London to don the flak jacket and go into battle for the fossil fuel that so many people love to hate.
For her, the mission is personal: Bangladesh-born, she sees coal as punching the ticket for emerging countries to get onto the development track. But it’s definitely not emotional: she wants to replace the heated, binary debate with something more dispassionate and well-informed.
'It's not a popularity contest': World Coal Association CEO Michelle Manook.
Photo: Ian Tuttle
In person, she’s softly spoken, but her messages are firm. To her own industry: pull together or lose the battle. To investors: get smarter. And to governments: level the playing field and lend a hand.
And for the World Coal Association itself? Don’t fight the wrong battle.
“For the association, for the coal industry in general, we’ve got caught up in a global popularity contest. That’s not what we’re about,” she says.
Instead, her job is to try and reframe the debate into one about technology – carbon capture, use and storage and high-efficiency, low-emission coal – and about economic development.
“Coal is very human. This is a human debate. It’s not a debate about climate, it’s a debate about human progress – and that’s the debate we’ve got to have,” she says.
“The future of the coal industry is really in emerging markets. They want the right to develop. And there’s a misunderstanding: people think they want to develop dirty, that’s actually not true.
"But it’s going to be difficult to develop in an environment where people are focused on coal and not focused on the technology.”
She took the job precisely because she wanted to work with, and in, emerging markets – something she reckons is more unusual in the industry than you would imagine.
And she’s certainly steeped in it: she was born to ethnic Armenian parents who ran a jute business in Dhaka, when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. Conflict wiped out the family’s wealth, and they moved to Western Australia when she was four, to start again.
When she talks about her career choices and her work, she often returns to the values of “respect and generosity” that her father instilled in her, and which she says propel her in her current role.
“In many ways, the anti-coal argument is a privileged argument for privileged people,” she says. “If you go into the emerging markets and the emerging-market governments, for them it’s not about a little bit of extra electricity into the grid, this is about first-time opportunity for electricity.”
Coal: You're Either In It Or You're Not
She’s impatient with big investors who are scrubbing coal from their portfolio, saying their “coal IQ” has dropped. She wants to convince them to look again, to be more agnostic.
But she’s even more impatient with her own industry, which lacks the courage of its convictions and is prone to the temptation of virtue signalling, leading to confused and incoherent messages.
“People can’t pretend. You’re either in coal or you’re not in coal; and you’re either committed to the transformation to clean coal or you’re not,” she says.
"There’s a lack of courageous leadership, that lack of acknowledgement that says ‘I’m in coal, it’s actually really important, and I get that I need to do it better.’ Once we have that clarity of message . . . we [can] get the right environment in place so we can all have that sensible, pragmatic discussion.”
She’s more forgiving of government – perhaps reflecting her own long stint in the WA public sector – saying some governments, including Australia’s, are by and large trying to create incentives and keep playing fields level.
The Morrison government, she reckons, is “in the right place”, recognising the importance of coal to Australia’s exports but also the need to shift rapidly into new coal technologies.
“They’re trying to do their best. Coal is a very difficult debate to engage in, for anyone, whether you’re a politician or just someone at a dinner party who supports coal. It’s not an easy debate because it has so much emotion attached to it,” she says.
“You have to engage in the debate and tease out what people are actually concerned about. When you tease that out, coal can actually respond to most of those concerns. But for some people, you’re just never going to change their minds. They’ve got entrenched views and entrenched positions.”
Her aim is not to be having this debate in 10 years’ time. “I hope we’re having a conversation about clean-coal technologies, that they’re getting out there and people are removing the barriers to that," she says. "I hope it’s a more generally understanding conversation about coal’s contribution.”