Vic Libs divided on new coal

March 23, 2012
The Victorian government's brown coal advertisement.

The planned expansion of coalmining in Victoria has led the member for Bass, Liberal MP Ken Smith, to oppose his own party on the issue.

Bass Coast Shire Council said it “is totally opposed to new mining of coal, and to gas extraction associated with coal (unconventional gas), within the shire,” in a resolution on March 21.

The motion asked the government to exempt land within the shire from coal and unconventional gas exploration or mining licences.

In a radio interview the next morning, Smith told ABC Gippsland he supported the council’s call.

He said: “We’ve got a farming community down here, and the last thing that we need to have now is people exploring the countryside from the shoreline up into the hills, looking to dig the place up. We don’t want it, we don’t need it."

The incident took place in a week that began with The Age revealing leaked Cabinet plans of a campaign to “address community concerns about the ongoing use of brown coal in a carbon-constrained future” with “an aggressive and pro-active communications campaign … that demonstrates the continued relevance of brown coal in a carbon-constrained environment”.

Environment Victoria’s Mark Wakeham condemned the government over the leak. “Coal is widely accepted as the largest contributor to climate change globally, threatening the health and survival of millions of people around the world,” he said.

“It is unthinkable that the Baillieu government believes it is appropriate to run a PR campaign to improve coal’s image. This is like running a taxpayer-funded campaign promoting the tobacco or asbestos industries.”

Resources minister Michael O’Brien has confirmed that the state government will ask for expressions of interest for new brown coal allocations. At least two companies, Exergen and AECL, are known to be seeking allocations to export brown coal.

Federal resources minister, Martin Ferguson, has expressed support for brown coal. “Brown coal exports represent the potential to develop new technologies, industry and jobs in the Latrobe Valley,” he said on March 21.

Exploration for brown coal has faced community protests against mining exploration in many areas of the state. More than 100 residents in Longwarry, east of Melbourne, attended a community meeting against coal exploration in their area on March 19.

A campaign against exploration at Toongabbie in the Latrobe Valley achieved a small victory last week, when company Commonwealth Resources abandoned plans to
explore for coal seam gas. It continues to look for coal.

Community campaigns also remain strong in the Bass Coast and Bacchus Marsh areas.

Friends of the Earth is calling for a moratorium across the state on new coal and gas projects. Spokesperson Cam Walker said: “Given the scale of the threat posed by this industry to our best farming land, the best outcome would be for the government to intervene and declare a moratorium on any new coal and gas exploration within the state until a thorough assessment has been made of the likely impacts of this industry."

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