Australian tycoon with plans for US coal mines
Andrew Forrest, Australia’s richest man and founder of Fortescue Future Industries, a global clean energy company, believes the Inflation Reduction Act is crucial to turning coal-fired power plants into clean hydrogen plants.
Forrest’s first green project in the US will be the conversion of the Centralia coal mine in Washington into a clean hydrogen plant.
The US has made dramatic upheavals in climate policy before. What is your level of confidence in the climate aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act and where does it come from?
My confidence comes from talking to coal industry leaders, listening to their reactions.
I tell them that this bill gives you Plan B for your coal-fired power plants. This act could lead to West Virginia and other industrial states becoming the world’s clean energy superpowers.
And are they listening?
I just got off the phone with one of them. They look at me as one of them, right? I’m from their background and I speak in black and white industrial language. So I tell them that coal is coming to an end and that if we don’t support this bill, your family and the family of anybody else working in these coal-fired power plants will have no way out.
I explained to, say, Joe Kraft – the legendary coal miner associated with Trump – that you and your employees are not married to coal. You are actually married to work, family, community, making change and creating energy. You are married to energy, not coal.
Does this law mean your investment case for green hydrogen? And is it enough to ensure America’s transition to green energy?
The law on lowering inflation has hit the mark. It may be higher, it may be broader, but it’s a hell of a start. It will cover most of the initial operating costs [of the transition], and it’s simple. Simplicity always wins out. There are more attractive regimes in Europe, which in principle guarantee no losses and no profits, but these are complex arrangements.
Coal-fired power plants have all the inputs and outputs and power generation permits – this is also important.
What do you think of the states that would benefit most from switching from coal to hydrogen, which tend to be more rural or Republican?
These Republican rural communities have been sold this nonsense about “it’s either coal or doom”. The real doom for them is if the world disappears, does something else and leaves them behind. The only difference between a coal-fired power station and one converted to clean hydrogen is that you will need more people to run those power stations.
Biden has put jobs at the centre of his climate messages. Does the messenger really need to be someone with experience in job creation?
That’s a hell of a point. I think I can get that message across a lot more strongly because I’m not a politician. I’m not looking for votes, that’s the harsh reality.
I’ve met with coal-fired power plant workers in West Virginia. When I stand in front of them, I am a man who has hired 23,000 people from scratch and I can walk amongst the employees anywhere and they will all recognise my name and buy me a beer or I will buy them a beer. I’m not some fat cat and they can see that.
I can tell them that we can’t use your career. But everything else we can really use: your energy, your innovation, your character. We will retrain you for that. They don’t want to hear “we’re closing this and we’re going to get carbon credits” or “we’re going to make money on Wall Street and see you later”. But that’s what they hear.
So my job is to say, ‘Don’t be afraid of the green industrial revolution – it needs more people like us.
Where are the UN climate talks going wrong and where should they go instead?
It’s simple. I would ask all these negotiators to speak out and look through the employment lens.
Talk about the employment and beauty of hydrogen, ammonia, green ethanol and green jet fuel and how to make trucks, ships and trains green.
I have automated a mining company. Fortescue Metals Group vehicles have been to the moon and back 150 times, fully autonomously. It could have been a disaster for all those drivers: four drivers for every truck, thrown out of work. We didn’t lose anyone. When we started automation, we had 8,000 people working, and when we finished, we had 16,000 people working.
We didn’t make money from chopping heads, we made money from efficiency, which gave us growth. Nowhere in the world is automation and high technology without high employment. Spread the climate message through work and people will listen.