News | 26th Nov, 2012

Pushing for a cleaner future

26 November 2012
Louis Nelson, Latrobe Valley Express


Meet Mark Wakeham, a man who has committed much of his career to closing down coal fired power generation in the Latrobe Valley.

Every time the state or federal governments announce an investment into the brown coal sector, chances are you will hear from him.

As campaigns director for Environment Victoria, one of the state's most proactive environmental lobby groups, it is his job to convince you why propping up the brown coal sector is a bad idea.

When the owner of Morwell's EnergyBrix power station, HRL, announced it had shelved plans to push ahead with its 600 megawatt Dual Gas coal gasification power station in June, Latrobe City Council said it was disappointing news for the region's job prospects.

Shortly after in Melbourne, Environment Victoria, along with a range of affiliated environmental lobby groups arranged a party, celebrating a victory for their hard-fought battle opposing the plant.

For years, the HRL Dual Gas project was a flash point in the brown coal debate, between environmental activists and the state and federal governments, which were supporting the project with millions of dollars in funding.

However the project was frozen indefinitely when $100 million in federal funding was withdrawn, after it suffered legal and funding setbacks in a prolonged development pipeline.

"We certainly think we contributed to the demise of the project, however as people in the Valley know, these types of proposed projects are quite often on vulnerable territory, and more often than not they don't go ahead," Mr Wakeham said.

"The project had everything it needed to succeed, apart from the social licence to operate… and that is one of our core functions; we will continually challenge the social licence of every coal project.

"We are very aware we are operating in sensitive territory; but we think (the Valley) is overly reliant on a dirty industry, and it is a region that needs more good quality jobs and industry."

Based on ongoing conversations he said he has engaged in with Valley stakeholders on both sides of the fence, Mr Wakeham said there was a widespread consensus the Valley needed to diversify industry.

With the International Energy Agency's recent conclusion in its World Energy Outlook 2012 report released this month, that two thirds of the world's known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if the world was to avoid dangerous climate change, Mr Wakeham said the need to re-gear the state's dependence on brown coal had never been so clear.

"When a conservative body like the IEA comes to that conclusion, we think it's clear that writing is on the wall on this on; however we all recognise the action that's required is very difficult," Mr Wakeham said.

"New coal technology projects may deliver jobs in the short term, but on the longer term trajectory we really need to move away; if you further entrench yourselves in these industries you create a bigger hole to climb out of."

"I'm very sensitive of politics in the Valley and also the poverty in some corners, but there's a reason we are in this position and I don't make any apologies for trying to have a conversation about the industries and projects that don't create more pollution in the Valley."

However when the Federal Government finally confirmed long-held speculation it was abandoning its "contract for closure" scheme in August, which planned to fast-track the closure of a Valley coal-fired power station, environmental groups felt betrayed.

"That was as extremely disappointing blow for us; we had worked very hard on two occasions to get governments to commit for power stations like Hazelwood to close, previously with State Government in 2010, which was abandoned when Baillieu was elected and walked away from action on climate," he said.

With contract for closure now buried and gone, Environment Victoria has steered its attention to the State Government's plan to allocate coal mining licences to up-and-coming players in the next generation of brown coal users.

"The coal allocation issue is very immediate to us; (State Energy and Resources Minister Michael) O'Brien is making it very clear he wants to pursue further coal use, and is set to make a decision early next year, but they are not talking to the public about that at all," Mr Wakeham said.

"We will certainly be working on these issues for the long term, but its about building a trusting relationship with (Valley) people even though many of them don't agree with us, so we hope we are doing it respectfully.

"But this issue is not going away; climate change is not going away."

Mr Wakeham will speak at an information session on the State Government's brown coal allocation plans at the Latrobe Performing Arts Centre Traralgon on Wednesday, from 7pm to 8.30pm, along the Environment Defenders Office's Felicity Milner and Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union's Luke Van der Meulen.


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