Coal mines and wind farms

The O’Farrell State Government is heading in the wrong direction with its draft strategy to fast-track coal mines and coal seam gas developments while at the same time putting the brakes on wind farm proposals.

The recently-released draft Strategic Regional Land use Plan for the Upper Hunter does not commit to protect this region’s prime agricultural, environmental, social and economic assets in line with the principles of Ecological Sustainable Development.

Rather, it espouses the economic benefits of “sustainable mining”. Seeing as the mining industry can’t even come up with a definition for “sustainable mining”, one can easily question the Government’s assumed bias in using such a term.

It is apparent the Government is simply driven by policy geared to the facilitate expansion of coal mining and the coal seam gas industry.

To facilitate compliance with the Strategic Plan, a new ‘gateway’ process is proposed that empowers a backroom panel to make recommendations on the ‘public interest’ based on a cost-benefit analysis. But a cost-benefit analysis is always going to be skewed towards the quick bucks of coal exports rather than the long term security of our food-producing agricultural areas. And it will ignore the long-term impacts on the local communities.

We’ve seen it before in the form of the former Part 3A assessment process, which ensured the Government had final say no matter what local councils and communities thought.

The draft Planning Guidelines for Wind Farms on the other hand is putting up road-blocks for proposed wind farms. The Government wants to restrict wind farms using landscape, visibility, noise and dubious health considerations. We’re talking about the growth of a proven, mature, technologically advanced industry which has none of the downsides of the expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas industries.

No similar restrictions apply to coal mines. Wind power is capable of meeting the Government’s 2020 production target of 20% renewable energy as well as having none of the on going operational costs of the mining industry – many of which rely on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies.

Communities across the Hunter and across Newcastle are adversely impacted by coal mining, the transport of coal, coal stockpiling in the Port as well as associated industries (we just have to think of Orica). Any suburb within cooee of the Port or the coal rail lines is impacted: suburbs such as Sandgate, Warabrook, Mayfield, Waratah, Tighes Hill, Carrington, Stockton and Newcastle East.

Regional towns and communities continue to decry the detrimental effects on their health and social fabric, agricultural and environmental integrity from coal mining and the coal seam gas industry.

The draft wind farm guidelines propose unscientific human health considerations despite the 2010 conclusion from the peak Australian medical body, the National Health and Medical Research Council, that “there are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines”.

According to an Industry & Investment NSW report prepared by Ernst & Young in 2010, “NSW could gain a significant proportion of the investment between now and 2020 if investors are presented with the appropriate financial, regulatory and policy settings”.

If the Government puts in place the appropriate financial, regulatory and policy settings it was estimated that almost 6,000 jobs would be directly supported in the wind power sector with up to $212 million of total economic activity in 2020.

Importantly for Newcastle and the region, the report noted that: “NSW has strong capability in steel, copper and cement production, required for wind power manufacture. The large majority of wind turbine parts, such as towers, blades, can be manufactured without a large investment in technology or training. Most non turbine components and infrastructure built in Australia could be built in NSW”.

Advances in technology in the industry’s short history have seen significant reductions in costs. Over the last 10 years production costs per kilowatt hour have dropped by 20%. Continuation of this trend will add significantly to the industry’s competitiveness.

We have an opportunity to diversify away from coal to renewable technologies. The vast majority of our population is employed in education, health and other service industries – not the mining industry. Our manufacturing industry could be resurrected. The region’s agricultural industry and environmental attributes can be and should be protected.

The O’Farrell Government needs to change direction.

Michael Osborne – Newcastle Greens Councilor

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