“WE don’t want Gippsland to become the new Pilbara.”
“Whenever I ask the government about the figures, they just fluff around it and give me the spin about job creation,” says Parker.
The problem – brown coal.
ON March 19 of this year, Victoria’s Minister for Energy and Resources, Michael O’Brien, confirmed the Coalition Government’s plans to expand brown coal mining.
The planned expansion will primarily be in the Latrobe Valley area, with the possibility of new mining projects opening in the west of Melbourne at Bacchus Marsh and Deans Marsh.
The Latrobe Valley rests above a vast brown coal deposit of 33 billion tonnes. Around 65 million tonnes is already mined annually for domestic use.
An outline of the proposed expansion will see the brown coal mined increase by at least 20 million tonnes, with plans to export the fossil fuel to other countries, such as China, Japan and India.
Environment Victoria CEO Kelly O’Shanassy has been a fierce critic of the Baillieu Government’s coal mining plan and the impact it will have on the environment.
“The short term effects on the environment will be that you would dig up a vast amount of prime agricultural land and natural areas around the coal mines,” says O’Shanassy.
Ms. O’Shanassy has questioned the government’s expertise in the area, specifically about centrifuge technology and carbon capture technology that is claimed to be able to provide a ‘clean’ brown coal-powered energy.
“There is no such thing as clean coal. For it to be considered clean, it has to have very little, if no, emissions.
“The only way to make coal clean is by capturing and storing those emissions, and there is no proven technology anywhere in the world for achieving that in coal mining and burning.
“If Victoria exported the brown coal available, you would increase Australia’s emissions by about 73 years worth of past emissions.”
However, the City of Latrobe Mayor Ed Vermeulen, attacked Ms. O’Shanassy’s views about the possibility of generating energy via the use of ‘clean’ coal.
“Coal is not the problem, the problem is carbon emissions,” says Vermeulen.
“That there are new technologies available, such as CCS (carbon capture & storage), that will mean that we can generate power into the future with very little emissions or zero emissions.
“I can firmly say that if carbon emissions are mitigated against and firmly controlled, then we can continue to use coal with no detriment whatsoever.”
John Parker, on the other hand, is puzzled by Mr. Vermeulen’s claims.
“I just don’t believe the technology is there for them to do that,” says Parker.
“When you speak to experts, they don’t believe the technology will be ready until at least 2030, and by that time anyway, new technology will be present and render it useless.”
Another issue that must be considered is the highly volatile nature of brown coal when it is dried.
“You cannot transport brown coal in the same way you do it for black coal, you need to dry it first,” says Mr. Parker.
“When you do dry it, it becomes like gunpowder, so it means that you are virtually transporting gunpowder across the state and shipping it to other countries.
“Previous government raised the issue off transporting brown coal but they were told to drop it because the technology was not yet available.”
When approached, the Government refused to comment on the expansions plans and instead issued a statement.
“The State Government has consulted a number of experts across all fields and has come to the conclusion that such an expansion would prove to be beneficial to the economy, and use new technology to extract brown coal without endangering the environment.”
ENVIRONMENT Victoria has suggested a switch to natural gas, which is three times less energy intensive per kilowatt hour of electricity than its coal counterpart.
Professor David Karoly, a climate change scientist at the University of Melbourne, is less enthusiastic about a possible switch to natural gas.
“Coal seam gas extraction can be as bad, or even worse, than using brown coal,” says Karoly.
“Coal seam gas is not a good solution because there is often leakage of the coal seam gas when it is extracted from the ground, and that then contributes substantially to increases in greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere.”
Prof. Karoly wants the Victorian Government to focus on switching to clean sources of energy, such as geothermal, hyrdo, wind and solar, as well as developing other sectors in rural Victoria.
“We need to enhance uptake of carbon dioxide through changing agricultural practices and speeding up reforestation.
“What is also needed is the rapid transfer to renewable, fossil fuel independent energy generation.
“The Latrobe Valley has enormous potential for that in terms of geo-energy sources and wind power sources.”
According to Prof. Karoly, Australia is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
“When we compare emissions per kilowatt per hour of electricity produced in Australia, it is higher than almost every other country in the world,” says Karoly.
“It’s substantially higher than the US by more than 20 per cent, and it’s more than 15 per cent higher than China.
“Australia also has the highest per person emissions and the highest per capita emissions of any developed country.”
Prof. Karoly’s research shows that Australia produces about 27 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per person, which is extremely high when compared to the US and China, whose populations dwarf Australia’s. The US produces about 26 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per person, and 5 tonnes per person for China.
“Over the last decade, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown substantially by more than 10 per cent, at a time when Australia was trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it was a signatory of the Kyoto protocol.”
PROF. Karoly has questioned the economical feasibility of an expansion of this magnitude, as the supply of brown coal will surpass its demand, and will continue to further do so in the future.
“Most other countries are seeking to reduce the use of brown coal, so it would be essentially trying to sell a product, which is no longer wanted or needed around the world.”
State Greens Senator, Greg Barber, echoes Prof. Karoly’s view on the economic benefits, or lack of, of expanding the brown coal mining industry in the Latrobe Valley.
“The government can’t afford the billions of dollars it would need to set up the infrastructure for coal exports,” says Barber.
“A lot of what the Government’s doing is just is fighting a rearguard action to protect coal against the falling prices of renewables.
Mr. Barber emphasises the importance of switching to renewable energy sources, which he believes will not only protect the environment, but also provide a much needed boost for the state’s economy.
“Our water supply and farming land is something that we need to maintain into the future, whereas the alternatives to fossil fuel energy production are available at the moment and should be used in whatever way possible.
“The price of renewable energy sources is dropping rapidly, and existing coal-fired power plants are losing out.
“Wind and solar energy is expensive up front, but the fuel is free, so they undercut coal-fired plants.”
Mr. Vermeulen believes that in order to ensure security in the economy and the job sector, the environment must be compromised to a certain extent.
“The implications would be more jobs; it would be taking advantage of this huge resource that we have,” says Vermeulen.
“I would reinforce that we’re not ignoring our huge resource, and there are ways of using it without having any emissions or very low emissions.”
Jakob Madsen, Professor of Economics at Monash University, is critical of Mr. Vermeulen’s claims.
“Mining is essentially a big cancer for the Australian economy because it’s killing all other sectors,” says Madsen.
“The manufacturing sector is all but diminished and the education sector is suffering, so we are essentially going to end up becoming a mining economy like in Africa.”
Mr. Parker is also sceptical of the claims made by the government in regards to job creation.
“To build a new power plant, there would be about 40 to 100 new jobs created, which is not much because it would be heavily reliant on computer-operated technology.”
PART of the Baillieu Government’s expansion plans have hinted at the possibility of constructing a new rail link that would connect Latrobe Valley and the Gippsland area to a nearby port, most likely Port Anthony.
“There will no doubt be important natural habitat areas and farmland that will be destroyed for this rail link, and a lot of infrastructure put in place,” explained O’Shanassy.
“There would be a more localised environmental impact from the rail link than the burning of fossil fuels itself.”
The proposed rail link could cut through the Morwell National Park, the Tarra-Bulga National Park and the Strzelecki State Forest in order to reach Port Anthony; the health of Holey Plains State Park and the Gippsland Lakes Coastal Park could also be jeopardised if an alternative route is built into the west.
The proposal of a port extension poses another problem itself. In the past few years, the dredging of Port Phillip Bay, the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant and the expansion of the Port of Hastings container transportation services have all had a heavy impact on the coastal environment.
So far, a number of options have been floated for the development of Port Anthony, which is already being developed into a bulk shipping wharf. The most like outcome would be the construction of a kilometre long conveyor that would stretch out into the bay.
“There will be a big issue of dredging and water pollution,” O’Shanassy argued.
“Wherever you are having industrialisation, there will always been an impact on the environment and pollution.”
Ms. O’Shanassy wants the state government to take responsibility and seek alternate ways of generating energy without destroying the environment.
“What we (Environment Victoria) want the Victorian government to do is to focus on a new and responsible form of economy that actually grow jobs and secure our economic future, but also help restore the environment by clean energy, energy efficiency and smart technology and processes.”
PROF. Madsen has proposed a more radical approach to curing Victoria of its mining “cancer”.
“We would need to kill mining so that the rest of the economy, in terms of other sectors, could recover.
“What the government should be doing is funding research in universities and subsidise energy-efficient companies.
“The most essential thing is to make sure the government gets a surplus in the budget and stop obsessing over the mining sector.”
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple battle. On one side you have the environmentalists who are relentless in their endeavour to ensure environmental safety and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side you have the pragmatists that, in a state of near-panic, aim to safeguard the economy and curb the unemployment rate.
“The government needs to focus on regional development and identify industries, such as forestry, tourism, agricultural, health – these are all growth industries,” says John Parker.
The only thing that parties on both sides agree on is that a compromise must be made in order to ensure an economically responsible approach to the complex issue of energy production.