Climate change protest targets Australia smelter

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Environmental activists tried to shut down Australia’s second-largest aluminum smelter on Tuesday in a widening series of protests targeting the resources sector, blamed by green groups for dragging its feet over global warming.

Production at the giant Tomago smelter north of Sydney was unaffected by the protest by environmental group Rising Tide, said a spokeswoman for the smelter, which is 51.55 percent owned by Rio Tinto Ltd/Plc.

Three members of the activist group had chained themselves together inside the facility to block trucks, a spokesman for Rising Tide, Steven Phillips, said.

“The government is pursuing a backwards climate policy that rewards big-polluting companies like Rio Tinto at the expense of the rest of the community and the world,” Phillips said.

“Aluminum smelting in Australia is two-and-a-half times more greenhouse polluting than the world average, because our energy comes almost exclusively from coal burning.”

Police were attempting to remove the activists from the site, according to Rio Tinto spokeswoman Diane Collier.

Last month, 14 Greenpeace activists broke into the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria state and chained themselves to a coal digger before being removed by police.

Hundreds of protesters in March staged peaceful blockades of Newcastle Port, in the same region as Tomago, preventing ships from entering the world’s largest export terminal.

Coal, aluminum and other industrial staples hard-hit by a downturn in global manufacturing are among Australia’s largest sources of export earnings. Australia is the fifth-largest producer of aluminum, with 7 percent of the world’s production.

The Australian government has delayed introduction of a far-reaching carbon emissions trading scheme by one year until 2011 to enable heavy industry to recover from the global financial crisis, drawing ire from green groups.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been under pressure from industry to water down or even ditch carbon-trading laws, which some in mining say are too costly in a tough economic climate.

Phillips said Tuesday’s protest was also to express anger that Tomago would get some 90 percent of its pollution permits for free under the government’s carbon plans.

Tomago is 36.05 percent owned by Gove Aluminum Finance Ltd, which in turn is owned 70 percent by CSR Ltd and 30 percent by AMP Ltd. Hydro Aluminum holds the remaining 12.4 percent interest in the smelter.

Tomago has three potlines, with a total rated capacity of 525,000 tonnes a year.

($1=1.274 Australian Dollar)

Reporting by James Regan and Jonathan Standing; Editing by Mark Bendeich