Friday, 25 June 2010

Dirty deals

Mining brown coal in the Latrobe Valley

In 1840 Count Paul de Strzelecki travelled through the ranges that now bear his name in South Gippsland. So dense was the forest cover that his party was reduced to felling trees and walking along the fallen trunks - far above the ground on a tangle of vegetation. They reached Westernport Bay a month late, with almost no equipment left, and starving.

Most of that forest was cleared in the 19th and 20th centuries, but there are a few magical patches left - especially in the Tarra-Bulga National Park, where I spent some holidays as a child.

20 million years ago, the forests covering what is now the Latrobe Valley were very similar to the forests through which Strzelecki struggled. As trees died and plant material compacted, they slowly formed brown coal. The layers of brown coal there are up to 400 metres thick. In places it is possible to see entire tree trunks in the upper layers where digging machines are cutting away at the deep seam.

The brown coal layer forms an insulation blanket, and research is under way to see whether the much higher temperatures below that blanket can be used to provide geothermal energy: if so, it will be important to keep the brown coal in place, so we don't let the heat dissipate.

But this week Victorian company Environmental Clean Technologies (don't you just love that name?) has signed the first deal to export Victorian brown coal. The company will send up to 20 million tonnes of processed brown coal to Vietnam every year. (ECT has also been involved in the oxymoronic "clean coal" business.)

Last year the Victorian Government stopped a similar export deal. But they have been studiously silent about this one.

Gillard government Trade Minister Simon Crean - who could veto the export - said that the export of brown coal was good for the economy.

He probably won't be around when we are dealing with the jobs lost from the Great Barrier Reef tourism industry - or the countless other benign industries which will be ruined by climate change.

Starting a new industry of shipping our dirty brown coal into third world countries to burn for fuel is crazy policy.

The signs of the climate crisis are in our face, and yet we are acting as though it is only a question of the money we can make now.

We've just seen a change of national leadership because of a failure to act on the climate crisis. This is a test of our new leadership.

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