Victorian upper house Liberal powerbroker Philip Davis has been accused of push polling to drum up public support for a controversial wood-fired power plant in the eastern Victorian town of Orbost.
In an extraordinary yes/no survey sent to Orbost residents last week, Davis asks:
“Do you support the development of a woody biomass electricity generation plant in the Orbost district to provide electricity for the far east Gippsland region and contribute [sic] to reducing Victoria’s greenhouse emissions?”
A gung-ho letter accompanying the survey explains the “benefits of biomass electricity generation” and says the wood-burning project would make “a significant contribution to reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions”.
Biomass electricity generation involves scraping the forest floor to salvage foilage and feeding it into a furnace to generate power. Detractors accuse it of creating blanketing air pollution, while proponents maintain that the practice is an environmentally friendly way of using resources that would otherwise go to waste.
Davis’ survey was accompanied by an un-bylined April 14 article in the Snowy River Mail spruiking its distribution, that appears to have been prepared in close consultation with Davis’ office. It follows months of campaigning for the plant in the Mail‘s pages from prominent timber industry pointman Garry Squires.
Mail articles headlined “Time is right for a green energy push” and a front page “Biomass generator for Orbost” article heavily quote Squires’ push.
Squires told Crikey that Davis had approached him with the idea of doing the survey and he had “made some comments on it”.
When pressed, he refused to reveal the details of the conversation, saying that they were “private discussions”. Squires said he had been accused by “greenies” of being league with South East Fibre Exports in the letters pages of the Mail, but that he had “no relationship” with the firm.
“I represent myself. Some people have trouble getting their head around the fact that I’m only concerned about the best outcome for the community.”
Squires, a former senior bureaucrat in the former Department of Sustainability and Environment, is now secretary of the Orbost Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He runs a timber industry consultancy “GRS consultancy services”. After leaving DSE, he became chief executive of East Gippsland Logging.
The buzz around biomass has reached fever pitch following the release in January of the Victorian Timber Industry Strategy that gave tacit backing for biomass projects, alongside its inclusion in the federal government’s 20% renewable energy target. A neighbouring 5.5 megawatt plant across the NSW border in Eden, proposed by the Japanese-owned South East Fibre Exports, is currently the subject of a bitter public consultation process.
There is speculation that if the plant becomes a reality, the firm may look to spread its tentacles over the border into Victoria.
Former Monash University researcher Aron Gingis, who has penned articles on pollution from wood-fired plants for the international journal Science, told Crikey that plants burning “hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wood” on both sides of the border would be a “environmental disaster”.
“The plant would harvest native forests and would cause major air pollution across the region. The smoke wouldn’t be able to cross the mountains so you’d have bowl effect that would lead to respiratory illnesses.”
Davis’ upper house colleague, Greens MP Greg Barber, said the idea of a wood-fired power plant was an “uneconomic scam” and that Davis was purposefully trying to bend public opinion.
“The whole project would rely on state government subsidies that should be going to bushfire victims.”
Crikey contacted Philip Davis for comment on this story but we didn’t hear back before deadline.