If you drive through Bacchus Marsh, you can’t miss the fact that it’s a foodie town. You might drive past the side-of-the-road stalls selling fruit and veg, the pick-your-own berry farms, or an advertisement for the harvest festival in March.
Traditionally a market garden area, Bacchus Marsh is a verdant foodbowl that keeps its rural character despite the ever-expanding city lapping at its doorstep.
Yet a shadow hangs over this community. The shadow has a name, and a number: EL 5294, a licence to explore for brown coal, black coal and methane on this pristine farmland.
EL 5294 covers 154 square kilometres of land between the Lerderderg State Park and the Brisbane Ranges National Park.The licence is jointly held by Mantle Mining and Exergen.
This week, the Minister for Energy and Resources is due to decide whether this license should continue, or whether it is time for the licence to expire.
There are myriad reasons why this licence should not be renewed, but here are the top four.
Firstly, the proponent of the project, Mantle Mining, recently commented that brown coal extraction is financially unviable at present, but they would still like to drill to see what they can find. The coal mining industry is indulging in an extraordinary level of self-delusion to think that there may, one day, be a financial future for brown coal. It’s not as though this is a new and experimental energy source that might suddenly take off. No, this is the old, dirty, outmoded stuff we’ve been using for years, and which our economy is (finally!) starting to grow out of.
It is accepted by economists and international coal companies alike that the coal industry is in structural decline. Despite receiving every encouragement from our ideologically coal-addicted federal government, the bottom is starting to fall out of the market in Australia too, as renewable energy becomes a far more attractive investment.
The second reason the Andrews Labor Government should baulk at renewing this licence is that Governments should not leave our important energy transformation up the market. If they do, it’ll leave communities and workers high and dry. If the Labor Government leaves each player in the fossil fuel game to make their own chaotic exit from this sinking ship, without a plan or an obligation to deal with the mess they leave in their wake, it will be disastrous for our environment and for communities. Instead, the Government should be planning now for our transition away from coal. A laissez-faire, hands-off approach is a tacit decision to leave workers stranded with no new industries to transition to once international coal companies leave, and to leave the taxpayers to clean up the mess that is left by coal exploration, old power plants and huge toxic coal mines.
The Andrews Labor Government has made lots of pleasant noises about loving renewable energy, which is great. But to make any difference to our emissions, this must be coupled with a strong plan to get over our addiction to coal. The silence from the Labor Government on this issue since they were elected is worrying, but the Government can redeem itself by refusing to renew Exploration Licence 5294.
Thirdly, it is more than time for the Bacchus Marsh community to be able to cast off the shadow that hangs over them. Communities living under the terms imposed by exploration licences, which allow the holder to explore for minerals in the area, face the constant burden of uncertainty about the future. The immediate disruptions of drilling and other exploration techniques are compounded by the looming prospect of some viable resource being discovered. In the case of coal mining, this could mean large scale industrial development; a massive increase in pollution and associated health and environmental problems; and a direct threat to the livelihoods of local people.
The threat of coal being discovered takes its toll on everything from property values to mental health and wellbeing, and foodbowl areas like Bacchus Marsh simply couldn’t survive the arrival of a polluting coal mine or plant. It would be a devastating blow to their reputation as a clean, healthy, food-producing area.
And finally, and probably most importantly, given that we have just experienced the hottest February on record, any Government support or encouragement for coal when we’re facing a climate emergency is highly, highly irresponsible.
It’s time to give communities certainty. It’s time to actually walk the talk on building renewable energy in Victoria. And it’s time to get serious about phasing out coal and protecting us from climate change. EL 5294 is one small piece in a much larger coal puzzle that we need to deal with, but ruling out renewing this license a small and easy step forward. Renewing it would be a huge step in the wrong direction.