Rio Tinto has mounted an energetic defence of clean coal, referencing Churchill and Neil Armstrong's moon landing in declaring it the only way to meet growing energy needs while reducing emissions.

The mining giant’s energy chief Harry Kenyon-Slaney told a business lunch that coal is a cheaper and easier source of fuel than anything other option.

Coal-fired power was the only way to satisfy rapidly growing energy use in Asia, India and other developing countries, he said.

“Put simply, that all-important requirement – for large-scale, reliable, affordable energy – means one thing only. A great deal of it will be generated from coal,” Mr Kenyon-Slaney said.

“That’s because coal is abundant – with estimated global reserves plentiful for more than another century.”

But he said the energy sector and society in general needs to work on reducing emissions from coal-fired power, likening the challenge to US President John Kennedy’s decision to commit huge resources to landing on the moon.

“The challenge now faced by the whole world is far more urgent and important (than the moon landing),” Mr Kenyon-Slaney said.

“But it can be solved by the same methodical, determined process. The world has no choice.”

The technology to capture and store emissions from coal already exists, the challenge is making it work on a commercial scale, he said.

Any attempt to remove coal from the energy supply would come at huge economic and social costs Mr Kenyon-Slaney warned.

“The alternative is economic stagnation with the social and political unravelling that always follows,” he said.

“In the words of another great 20th Century leader by the name of Churchill, The truth is incontrovertible.

“Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

Coal prices have been on a slide for several years due to an oversupply and weak global demand.

The commodity has been a source of pain for Rio Tinto in recent years, with the company forced to write down the value of its Mozambique coal assets by around $US3 billion in 2013, before offloading them for just $US50 million in July.

Rio’s energy division, which includes coal and uranium, made a $US19 million loss during the first half of 2014, which followed a $US52 million loss during the same period in 2013.


By Evan Schwarten