Activists take the fight to new coal

June 25, 2010
Anti-coal rally, Melbourne, June 25. Photo: Environment Victoria

NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called them “factories of death”. British columnist George Monbiot has said “everything now hinges” on stopping them. US climate writer Bill McKibben is prepared to be arrested to have them shut down.

But Australian state governments don’t get it — they are still enchanted by coal-fired power stations.

Climate campaigners say Australia should urgently replace existing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy, but 12 new “death factories” are slated to be built in Australia over the next few years.

If built, the power plants — dubbed the “dirty dozen” by Greenpeace — would add an extra 7% to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Four of the proposed coal-fired plants are in Queensland. In Western Australia, one power station is under construction with two more in the pipeline.

In South Australia, two new coal-fired stations have been proposed alongside pilot coal-to-liquid projects. Energy company HRL also wants to build a new 550 megawatt brown coal-fired station in Victoria.

But proposed coal-fired plants in New South Wales could spew out more greenhouse pollution than all the projects in the other states put together.

Two new giant power stations — at 2000 megawatts each — are planned for Mt Piper (near Lithgow) and Bayswater (near Muswellbrook). Upgrades to existing coal-fired plants are also being considered.

The NSW government has refused to say whether the new plants will be powered by coal or natural gas. Rather, planning minister Tony Kelly said in 2009 that the government would let “market conditions” determine what fuel is used. In January, Kelly formally approved the concept plans for the two power plants.

Neither site has infrastructure for natural gas in place, but both have coal-fired plants and existing coal-friendly infrastructure. This means it’s almost certain the new stations will be powered by coal. If so, the state’s emissions would rise by about 15%, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW said — more than the total emissions produced by the NSW transport sector.

The two government-owned companies, Macquarie Generation at Bayswater and Delta Electricity at Mt Piper, will build and operate the power plants.

However, there are signs the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government is toying with a change to its energy policy in a bid to boost its green credentials.

The June 12 Daily Telegraph said the NSW cabinet was to discuss a proposal to place a ban on new coal-fired plants. The option of a coal ban was jointly submitted to the cabinet by environment minister Frank Sartor and energy minister Paul Lynch.

Sartor would not be drawn on the proposal. He told the Telegraph the energy policy discussion was “ongoing”. However, the government is expected to announce a decision within weeks.

Climate activists involved with the No New Coal campaign are pushing for the two coal-fired power stations to be abandoned. The campaign is supported by Greenpeace, the Nature Conservation Council and several Sydney-based climate action groups.

Terry McBride, an activist involved in the campaign, told Green Left Weekly the campaign had organised “local climate groups and members of the general public to meet with their MPs to ask them to stop the Bayswater and Mt Piper power plants”.

He said that many groups have reported the MPs have been willing to meet, “but unfortunately it seems difficult to get them to actually commit to doing anything around the issue”.

McBride said the new power stations were not needed as clean energy alternatives existed.

“We normally [present] the facts that there are more jobs in renewable energy than in coal power and that renewable energy can provide baseload power”, he said.

Other climate activists have mounted a legal challenge to the proposed power stations. Rising Tide activist Ned Haughton lodged papers with the Land and Environment Court against Kelly, Delta Electricity and Macquarie Generation on June 3.

The Environmental Defender’s Office is handling the case, which was heard on June 25.

Haughton told GLW he was asking the court to rule the approval of the power station’s concept plans invalid because the minister did not take ecological sustainability into account.

“The government has proposed power stations at Bayswater and Mt Piper, but we don’t believe the minister has properly considered environmentally sustainable design”, Haughton said.

“Nor has he considered intergeneration inequity. If we don’t do something about climate change now, the problem won’t go away. It will be worse for future generations.”

Haughton also said coalmining and coal-fired power stations had a negative impact on the health of local communities and water supplies.

“The government’s own reports say we don’t need any new baseload power stations for at least 10 years. There is plenty of time for us to be building alternatives, but they haven’t considered this at all.”

He said the legal case was “part of the overall movement campaign to move to a sustainable society and sustainable lifestyle”.

[For more information about the No New Coal campaign, email Terry at]

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