Coal or wind in your backyard?

In Victoria, planning laws governing wind farms are more stringent than those that apply to mining. Yet this seems completely contrary to their relative dangers to the environment and local communities.

If you’re going to ‘pick winners’ from the energy market, you at least want to choose wisely. So it’s hard to see why Victorian laws treat coal and coal seam gas more favourably than renewable energy.

The Environment Defenders Office (Victoria) (EDO) released a report last week that finds Victoria’s laws give the mining industry privileged treatment that few other industries enjoy. In particular, they now make it easier to obtain approval for a coal mine than a wind farm in Victoria.

The planning rules for wind farms introduced by the state government last year are some of the toughest that apply to any type of development anywhere in the country. No new wind projects have been proposed in Victoria since they have been introduced.

At the same time, the government has moved to relax the laws that apply to new mining projects, developing a strategy to encourage brown coal export in Victoria, and initiating a Parliamentary Inquiry to identify and remove barriers to further ‘Greenfields’ minerals exploration and mining.

That Parliamentary Inquiry is due to table its report tomorrow. Let’s hope it considers the following differences between the treatment of coal mines and wind farms in Victoria:

-- A wind farm cannot be built within two kilometres of a person’s home without their consent. But a coal mine can be opened within 100 meters of a home without the owner’s consent.

-- Wind farms are now excluded from ‘no go’ zones stretching across the state. But coal mines face no such ‘no go’ zones: the only place they are excluded from is national parks (for now).

-- All wind farms require planning approval from the local council. Coal projects, on the other hand, can avoid the need to obtain certain planning approvals at all in some cases.

-- Wind farms must comply with environmental laws like any other project. Coal projects, on the other hand, are exempt from parts of key laws like the Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic).

This treatment is obviously at odds with the scientific need to make a rapid transition out of polluting energy sources, like coal and gas, and into renewable energy. It is at odds with Victoria’s abundant renewable energy resources, and their potential for growth in investment and jobs.

It also represents a formidable distortion to the Victorian energy market. The carbon price and other Clean Energy Future policies will drive billions of dollars of investment in renewable energy, but that investment will not go to Victoria so long as these regulatory barriers are in place.

It reflects an assumption that the public benefit of extracting minerals is greater than any costs that may arise from doing so. However, the Industry Commission noted in 1991 that this is not necessarily the case — an argument which seems even more true now that more is understood about the impact on the health and safety of regional communities, the environmental impacts of mining (especially for coal and coal seam gas), and the macroeconomic costs of the mining boom for other economic sectors.

Why then should wind energy be subject to more restrictive laws than coal and coal seam gas?

For example, if wind farms are subject to ‘no go’ zones, why shouldn’t coal mines be? The EDO report calls for a strategic planning process to identify sensitive areas (for example, those with valuable groundwater resources, or prime agricultural land, or high conservation value areas) and protect them from mining altogether through ‘no go’ zones closed to mining.

If regional communities can ‘veto’ wind farms near their property, why shouldn’t they have the same rights for coal mines? The Victorian Farmers Federation has called for this right of veto. The EDO report also calls for regional communities to have the right to appeal mining approvals, and to enforce breaches of the law, in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

There are good reasons to think that renewable energy should be treated more favourably than fossil fuels, and given further support from the Victorian government. But at the very least, the government should level the playing field.

After all, giving privileged support an industry as questionable as the coal and coal seam gas industry is stretching the limits of the phrase ‘picking winners’.

Michael Power is a Law Reform Lawyer at the Environment Defenders Office (Victoria), an independent not-for-profit centre dedicated to public interest environment law.

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