If ever there was a naked grab by the forestry and land clearing industries for a green clover – it’s the assertion that burning native trees taken off public and private lands for electricity is good because it’s renewable.
New South Wales is the latest to fall for the push to generate electricity from native bush-land logging or clearing that will use a new regulation to overturn a decade-old ban. The Abbott government also intends to expand the renewable energy target to include this “dead koala” electricity.
The proponents say it will utilize ‘waste’ but you can hardly call whole eucalypt trees ‘waste’. They say it will use trees that have been passed over for sawlogs or pulplogs, or those that have been cleared because they are ‘invasive native species’ – but why not leave them in the ground where they deliver vital environmental services like clean air and water, CO2 sequestration and native habitat?
Another justification is that there are strict environmental controls in place. Well, there used to be. Now that we have conservative governments in power with their zeal for removing ’green tape’, our land clearing laws and forest environmental approvals are under attack. The O’Farrell government has a clear agenda to weaken environment protection laws.
The Native Vegetation Act was intended to prevent broad-scale clearing but recent changes to its enabling regulation have opened up tens of thousands of hectares of regenerating bush in western NSW to ‘self assessment’ codes for landowners with bulldozers and chains at the ready. Previously a farmer was required to obtain consent via a property management plan issued by the local Catchment Management Authority. The approval process protected threatened vegetation communities, bushland corridors, soil and water quality, bringing expert evidence and scrutiny to bear.
Similarly, licence conditions for native forest logging were hard fought for, and are also in the firing line. Prescriptions to protect threatened species are being reviewed to water them down, and rules that prevented logging on steep lands, are being eroded. Because the export market is declining pulplogs (that is trees used for woodchips from clear-felled forest) will also be fed into the furnace. There has never been an acceptable environmental case for clear-felling of vast areas of native bush for conversion from mature, diverse forest into virtual even-aged plantations. If the woodchip market collapses – that’s good for the forest – and we should not seek to replace it with domestic electricity generation.
Rather than simply oppose these adverse developments, Total Environment Centre (TEC) has been resuscitating consumer opposition to using ‘dead koala electricity’. Some years ago TEC and other environment groups were able to obtain commitments from those utilities that could purchase this power – to reject it – because of a consumer backlash. Our surveys showed it was a deeply unpopular source of electricity. And it still is.
We have launched a brief video and we are contacting all retailers requesting they cancel any existing or planned Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with bioenergy plants in NSW that would enable the burning native vegetation (excluding plantation) materials for electricity generation. So far Origin and AGL have agreed and the Clean Energy Council has also rejected such electricity. We will be undertaking a survey of all retailers next year and advising consumers of the results.
Does Australia really need any more energy generation given declining base-load and peak power consumption, and the mothballing of many megawatts? It seems to be a great perversity that when we don’t need the power ,we are yet planning to create it from such environmentally damaging activities as clearfelling and land clearing. There is no sense in it – unless you are driven by an ideological desire to dismantle hard-won environment protections just because your logging and farmer mates don’t like them.
Jeff Angel is executive director at Total Environment Centre – www.tec.org.au