It has been a year now since the Baillieu government took the reins in Victoria. Some people thought it was going to usher in an era of progressive, small “l” liberal government that would balance the needs of business, labour and the environment in a responsible and even-handed way. In fact, it has turned into one of the most environmentally regressive governments ever seen in Australia.

The new Victorian government has systematically dismantled environmental protections and determinedly ignored its stewardship responsibilities to the environment. Whether it has been cattle-grazing in the national parks, reversing the moratorium on brown coal mining, closing down wind-farm investments or giving miners open slather on CSG, the depressing story all year has been “another week, another environmental policy failure.

The International Energy Agency warns that the “door may be closing” on limiting global temperature rises to 2°. At this month’s Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference in Germany, international governments and agencies meet to discuss this very issue. Oxfam’s latest warning echoes that of scientists who, for years, have predicted food and water shortages as a result of a warming planet, sparking or fuelling war. The global population, just 3 billion in 1959, is now 7 billion and is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050. Governments are now scouring the planet for arable land, especially in response to the international food crisis that accompanied the global financial meltdown.

In a world hungry for resources, how will the Victorian government address the nexus between energy, food security and water needs in a way that ensures a sustainable future for all three? Foreign buyers, mostly Chinese, have already started amassing large portfolios of Victorian agricultural, forestry and fishing assets, according to a recent report by The Age. President of the Bairnsdale branch of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Rob Grant, is just one of the many farmers furious about the sell-off:

“Agricultural land is a finite resource and, under the current incumbent management, it will be producing less fibre and food. After 13 years of drought, morale is low and peppercorn prices are being offered and accepted at the farm gate.”

Precious arable land is at threat not only from countries seeking to secure their own future food security, but also through acquisition for the mining of brown coal and coal seam gas. But before such sales can trigger investigation by the Foreign Investment Review Board, they must exceed an astronomical $231 million.

In overturning the Brumby government’s shelving of all new brown coal mines, the Baillieu government is actively promoting one of the world’s most-carbon intensive and polluting forms of energy — their bilateral support for the former Labor government’s 20% emission reduction target by 2020 all but forgotten. In effect, the Baillieu government’s actions work to “lock in” climate change in Victoria. Under recent legislation, for instance, new coal-fired power stations may be built as close as one kilometre from the nearest residence, while a wind farm must be at least double that somehow, therefore, the entirely unproven deleterious effects of wind noise are now seen in Victoria as a far greater danger to public health than noxious clouds of coal smoke.

Voters may have been kept in the dark about Baillieu’s plans, but miners somehow got wind of the coming bonanza. Hundreds of brown coal mining leases have now been issued for Victoria’s prized farm land as well as those areas now regulated out of bounds to wind farms — coastal regions and areas of significant environment value.

Environment Victoria’s new website, CoalWatch, allows users to see at a glance which areas of Victoria have been leased to mining companies for the mining of brown coal — now over 40% of the state.

For instance, Exploration Lease EL 4416 — a massive 3700-square kilometre lease to Dr John White’s Ignite Energy Resources — takes in Southern Gippsland’s prime coastal and tourism region — including the entire length of the spectacular 90 Mile Beach.

White is an old friend of the Liberal Party, being the former head of prime minister John Howard’s Uranium Industry Framework and a major investor in the Bush-Howard plans for Australia to become the world’s primary repository for toxic nuclear waste.

The Mineral Resources Sustainable Development (MRSD) Act requires licensees to consult with landholders prior to exploration. Welshpool resident Dr Chris James, apart from being concerned about a lack of community consultation by the miners, says the rapidly expanding mining industry also engages in risky experimental processes.

White’s company, IER, has several partnership projects all requiring brown coal for experimental processes — one using it as a base for a soil fertiliser. But how does it make sense for the open-cut mining of prime agricultural land being used to boost carbon in less productive land? Of course, it makes perfect sense if you are a fertiliser maker.

Also of concern is Cougar Energy’s joint venture to develop an Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) project within IER’s lease. Cougar’s pilot project at Kingaroy was closed down by the Queensland government due to water contamination issues. What controls will the Baillieu government exercise?

Key independent MP Tony Windsor believes prime agricultural land could be irretrievably damaged by CSG mining — and stands ready to torpedo the federal government’s mining tax if it doesn’t address the impact of CSG mining on land, water systems, farmland and wildlife. Windsor has a private member’s bill that will seek to slow the process down and arm the Commonwealth with more powers.Windsor said, in a recent interview, that his bill will test the relationship between miners and the Coalition. In 2008, Windsor put up a similar amendment that was subsequently carried by the Senate. The Coalition initially supported the deal and, indeed, initially praised themselves for saving the Liverpool Plains and Darling Downs.

Then, according to Windsor:

“… that night, Mitch Hook from the Minerals Council invaded the premises and, next morning, I think for the first time in political history, the Nationals and the Liberals recanted on their vote of the night before and the bill was defeated.”

Thanks to that 2006 Four Corners exposé, we know that mining interests hijacked the Howard government’s greenhouse policy to delay action on climate change. A leaked memo, for instance, signalled that government’s intention to kill off the wind industry. Ted Baillieu has finished the job of killing off the wind industry in Victoria.”

There also seems little likelihood a conservative government will support Australian solar inventions either, like David Mills’ thermal solar technology or Dr. Kylie Catchpole’s nano-particle technology — lauded as one of the top three green technologies likely to change the world.

When action on global warming can no longer be delayed by the Victorian government, what will its exit strategy be for brown coal? How will it placate community concern over food security and energy in a warming planet? In the absence of any willing investors left for wind or solar, are Victorians being softened up for the nuclear debate we’re yet to have?

Peter Fray

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