IA INVESTIGATION: Victoria goes dirty brown

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IA INVESTIGATION: The new Victorian Government has abandoned any concerns for the environment in a rush to turn Victoria into a big, dirty, brown coal mine. Environment editor Sandi Keane reports.


THE NEW body politic in Victoria has undergone a tectonic shift backwards in its increasing abandonment of its stewardship responsibilities to the natural world.

It seems to be a case of another week — another environmental policy failure. Baillieu is going backwards on the environment say Victoria’s environment groups, organisers of the Backwards March on November 14, which saw hundreds of Victorians calling for an urgent change in direction.

With the International Energy Agency warning the “door may be closing” to limit global temperature rise to 2C, the Baillieu government stubbornly continues to “lock in” irreversible climate change in Victoria.

Under recent legislation, new coal-fired power stations can be built 1km from the nearest residence (or just over 1km in the case of the Anglesea Primary School) - but not for a windfarm, which needs to be at least 2km away from the nearest complaining resident.

It seems dinosaurs still roam free in climate skeptic Liberal-land, and with it comes a return to the quarry vision of yesteryear.

In a world hungry for resources, how will the Baillieu government in Victoria address the interconnections between the energy, food security and water nexus in a way that ensures a sustainable future for these three competing needs?

At this month’s international Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference in Germany, governments and agencies around the world will meet to tackle this problem.

If we don’t acknowledge the need for sensible stewardship of the earth we depend upon for our survival, the Anthropocene Age (so named because of our massive impact on the planet) will be seen by future historians as the turning point when catastrophic global warming could have been avoided — but wasn’t.

Oxfam’s latest warning echoes those of scientists who, for years, have predicted food and water shortages as a result of a warming planet — in turn, sparking or fuelling war.

“Food security” is the global political “buzzword” these days. The global population, just 3 billion in 1959, and today 7 billion, is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

The grab for arable land is on.

“International raiders” haven’t just infiltrated racing Victoria’s turf. Qatar has made off with a lot more than just the Melbourne Cup. The recent sale of 8,000+ hectares of prime sheep-grazing and cropping land in Victoria to the Qatar government brings its agricultural holdings (mostly in Victoria) up to $100 million.

The land grab in Victoria and other states began in response to the international food crisis that accompanied the global financial meltdown.

Other foreign buyers, mostly Chinese, have already started amassing large portfolios of Victorian agricultural, forestry and fishing assets according to a recent report by The Age.

President of the Bairnsdale Victorian Farmers’ Federation branch, Rob Grant – whose family has farmed in Victoria since the 1880s – is worried about the sell-off:

“Agricultural land is a finite resource and under the current incumbent management, it will be producing less fibre and food .... After 13 years of drought, morale is low and peppercorn prices are being offered and accepted at the farm gate.”

And you don’t even know who the actual vendor is, complains Grant:

“Under the law of sale, provided a vendor agrees, the real purchaser can hide behind a nominee.”

Prime farmland is not just at threat from countries seeking to secure their own future food security but from the sell-off of precious arable land for the mining of dirty, brown coal and coal seam gas. The current threshold is $231 million before it triggers investigation by the Foreign Investment Review Board. Thankfully, the federal government is now examining a proposal to reduce this to $5 million, as it is in New Zealand.

Over 40 per cent of Victoria is now under licence — a “ticking time bomb” according to Environment Victoria’s Make Wakeham. Its new http://www.environmentvictoria.org.au/coalwatch" target="_blank">CoalWatch, allows users to see at a glance which areas of Victorian have been leased to mining companies for the mining of brown coal.


In overturning the Brumby government’s shelving of all new brown coal mines, the Baillieu government is staking its future on the export of one of the world’s most carbon intensive and polluting forms of energy. The bilateral support of the former Labor government’s 20 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 seems all but forgotten.

Voters might have been kept in the dark about Baillieu’s plans to transform farmland to quarries during last year’s election campaign, but miners certainly got wind of the coming bonanza and responded with a flurry of activity. Hundreds of brown coal mining leases have now been issued for Victoria’s prized farm land as well as those areas now out of bounds to wind farms — coastal and areas of significant environment value.

Long time Liberal luminaries and heavyweights, of course, come in for special favours.

By far the most egregious example of this is the massive 3,700 sq km lease EL4416 to Dr. John White’s Ignite Energy Resources. Cutting a swathe right acrosssouthernGippsland’s prime coastal and tourism region, it runs the entire length of the spectacular 90 Mile Beach from the top of Wilsons Promontory to the Gippsland Lakes, half circling the towns of Bairnsdale, Sale and Traralgon.

White is more than just a valued friend of the Liberal Party and former head of Prime Minister John Howard’s Uranium Industry Framework. White is a serious player in the international nuclear stakes and was the brainchild behind the “cradle to grave” business plan for President George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

White invested $45 million in a UK/USA/Aus consortium. The Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group would produce the nuclear fuel rods in Australia, lease them and bring back the spent fuel rods for storage — as outlined in NFLG’s submission to the Switkowski Committee’s Uranium Mining, Process and Nuclear Energy – Opportunities for Australia?

White estimated the fortune to be made on storing the waste to be a staggering $6 billion per annum — trumping Australia’s biggest single LNG agreement, which was valued at $90 billion over 20 years or just $4.5 billion per annum were it to become a reality.

The Mineral Resources Sustainable Development (MRSD) Act requires licensees to consult with landholders prior to exploration. Welshpool resident, Dr. Chris James, is concerned about the lack of community consultation with individual farmers on mining leases, believing they are simply contacted, signed up with confidentiality clauses and any communication with the local population left to the local council. And according to James, the rapidly expanding mining industry is engaged in some risky experimental processes.

White’s company, IER, has a number of partnership projects that could be described as these sorts of experimental processes. All require an open-cut brown coal mine. One uses brown coal as a base for a soil fertiliser. Sounds laudable enough but one can’t help question how turning prime agricultural land into an open cut brown coal mine in order to boost the carbon of less productive land makes sense — except, perhaps, as a profit spinner for fertiliser manufacturers.

Of more concern is Cougar Energy’s joint venture to develop an Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) project within IER’s lease. Cougar’s pilot project at Kingaroy has been closed down by the Queensland Government due to water contamination issues. What controls will the Baillieu government exercise?

Victoria is shaping up for a rancorous debate on coal seam gas, just as we’ve seen in Queensland and NSW. Friends of the Earth is, indeed, calling for a complete moratorium. Of major concern to Victorian farmers is Commonwealth Mining’s lease (EL5394) which includes the second most important irrigation zone in the state.

“Coal seam gas leases in areas such as the MacAlister Irrigation Area put the entire Latrobe Valley aquifer at threat,” Rob Grant warns.

This is prime agricultural country, the sort that key independent, Tony Windsor, believes could be irretrievably damaged from CSG explorations. Commonsense demands that it should be non-negotiable without firm guarantees that aquifers won’t be damaged or contaminated.

Windsor stands ready to torpedo the federal government’s mining tax if it doesn’t address the impact of coal seam gas mining on ground water systems, farmland and native fauna and flora. His private member’s bill will seek to slow the process down and arm the commonwealth with more teeth, via the EPBC Act.

Which way will Tony Abbott jump? In a revealing recent interview with the ABC’s Breakfast host, Fran Kelly, Windsor says his bill will put the cosy relationship between the miners and the Coalition to the test. Back in 2008, Windsor put up a similar amendment to the water bill, which was subsequently carried by the Senate. The Coalition supported the deal and praised themselves, at the time, for saving the Liverpool Plains and Darling Downs.

But then, according to Windsor:

“...that night, Mitch Hook from the Mineral Council invaded the premises and, next morning – I think for the first time in political history – the Nationals and the Liberals recanted on their vote of the night before and the bill was defeated”.

Thanks to a disturbing exposé by Four Corners back in 2006, it is no secret that the self-proclaimed greenhouse ‘mafia’ hijacked the Howard Government’s greenhouse policy so as to delay action on climate change. A leaked memo from the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group’s (LETAG), for instance, signalled the government’s intention to kill off the wind industry. The Baillieu government merely continues the job.

Abbott’s clean energy policy, which allows the big polluters to keep right on polluting, points to a tightening of the stranglehold on Coalition policy, as some members of the ‘mafia’ clearly ratchet up their turf war with the wind industry.

But when ‘mafia’ mining giant BHP-Billiton’s boss Marius Kloppers warned Australia in September last year to look beyond coal towards other energy sources in anticipation of a global carbon price, was BHP playing the uranium card?

An interesting article in Energy Efficiency speculates that this is so — backed up by the fact that Australia is predicted to reach Peak Coal by 2040. The writer concludes by positing that BHP is more interested in nuclear power for Australia so it can dig more coal to sell elsewhere.

Alexander Downer certainly sees a radiant future for BHP in the nuclear stakes. In a series of op-ed pieces for the Adelaide Advertiser and several reports in The Australian, Downer singles out Whyalla, Port Augusta and Olympic Dam’s desalination plant as ideal sites for a nuclear reactor (with easy access to Olympic Dam’s uranium naturally) along with an enrichment plant. Woomera is proposed as the nuclear waste dump. This is all a waiting bonanza for BHP once it transitions from coal to uranium.

The nuclear genie keeps popping out of the bottle, in what is starting to feel like a “softening up” process. Various Coalition shadow ministers have played nuclear tag team over the past year, including the Coalition’s spokesman on energy, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, who told the audience at an event in Brisbane that nuclear power was the only “zero emissions baseload” option.

His boss, Tony Abbott, is on record repeatedly pitching nuclear power as the “only realistic way for zero-emissions baseload power, although he always qualifies his comments with “not for the moment”.

The Coalition’s nuclear ambitions are clearly laid out in the Liberal Party’s July 2010 election policy, which includes the promise of a debate. Question is not just when but how will the Coalition turn public opinion around — especially on the deadly waste?

Under a Coalition Government, the policy sounds convincingly reassuring when it comes to taking other countries’ nuclear waste:

“A Coalition Government will not accept other countries’ spent nuclear fuel or nuclear waste.”

But resolutions passed at Liberal Party Federal Council, June 2-3, 2007, give lie to the chorus of denials, whenever the media applies the blowtorch to the waste issue. Under Item No. 24 Nuclear Industry, the Council believes Australia should:

“expand its current nuclear industry to incorporate the entire uranium fuel cycle”

The “entire uranium fuel cycle” is White’s “cradle to grave” plan for GNEP which would see Australia leasing the fuel rods then bringing them back for safe storage – id est, Australia would be taking back its waste not the waste of other countries; of course, when you lease something, ownership remains with the lessor.

Past history points to little likelihood that a conservative Australian government will support Australian solar inventions either like David Mills’ successful thermal solar technology or more recently Dr. Kylie Catchpole’s nano-particle technology — which was lauded as one of the top three green technologies likely to change the world.

The future of solar, like wind, looks bleak after the feed-in tariff was cut from 60c to 20c per kWh. Hundreds of jobs have been lost, mostly in regional areas, according to the clean energy industry.

So, when action on global warming can no longer be delayed, what will the Victorian government’s exit strategy be for brown coal? How will it placate community concern over food security and energy in a warming planet? In the absence of any willing investors left for wind or solar, are Victorians the first to be softened up for the nuclear debate we’re yet to have?

Perhaps the winner in the current search for a new number plate slogan for Victoria, once proudly called the “Garden State”, could be “Victoria - the Quarry State”?

(A different version of this story was also published by leading independent news Crikey earlier today.)

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