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The communities on the frontline of new fossil fuels in Victoria

Kate Wattchow

The science is indisputable. The rampant burning of fossil fuels is releasing greenhouse gas emissions that are driving accelerated global heating. And it's only getting hotter. We are in a climate crisis and have a narrow window of time in which to act if we are going to mitigate catastrophic climate change.

At a state level, some good things are happening in Victoria. Thanks to a powerful grassroots movement fracking was banned, and communities across the state are taking up renewables. However, despite these steps forward there is, simultaneously, damaging regressive action. This is in the form of new fossil fuels; from experimental coal in the Latrobe Valley being greenwashed by a government funded waste-carbon injection proposal, to a myriad of new gas projects and pipelines creeping across the state.

Not only do these projects jeopardise direly needed action on climate, but they threaten the health of communities and workers, endanger the environment and water sources, and put local economies based on agriculture and eco-tourism at risk.

Interestingly, it seems even fossil fuel proponents, politicians, and the Murdoch press largely realise that the days of unabated emissions are over. All of these projects are in some way being framed as 'climate solutions', in what appears to be an attempt to co-opt the transition to renewable energy so they can keep polluting and profiting at the expense of Victorian communities.

The Fossil Frontlines Community Tour

In October and November, Energy Justice Victoria, a collective of Friends of the Earth Melbourne, went to the communities on Victoria's fossil fuel frontlines. We wanted to meet community members face to face and hear from them about the impact of living with, and fighting, these proposals, as well as what they see as the alternative future for their region. Our Fossil Frontlines Community Tour went as follows:
Seaspray is a coastal community in East Gippsland that was crucial in the fight to ban fracking. Here we met with ​Gasfield Free Seaspray​ on the beach and took part in their #DefendTheMoratorium photo for a Week of Action. Following this we heard from community members at the surf club. Some of the concerns discussed included unrehabilitated gas drill sites, a lack of job transition plan for offshore gas workers, as well as the impact on water, agriculture, and the local economy if onshore gas gets started.

Golden Beach​ – The small town of Golden Beach is located on Ninety Mile Beach, and is currently facing multiple new fossil fuel projects. We co-hosted with ​Ninety Mile Against Carbon Storage​, who are fighting the CarbonNet waste-carbon injection proposal that would see carbon waste from Kawasaki's coal-to-hydrogen plant in Latrobe Valley injected into the seafloor if the trial moved to a commercial scale operation.

They are also fighting a new offshore gasfield that would lock in more emissions Victoria can't afford, as well as an offshore gas storage site located worryingly close to the proposed waste-carbon injection site (a seismically active area ‒ community members are concerned about the safety of such dynamic projects happening side-by-side).

Westernport ​– In the town of Balnarring in Westernport, we co-hosted with ​Save Westernport​ and ​Westernport Peninsula and Protection Council​. Westernport is a large bay in southern Victoria, containing French Island and Phillip Island. The bay contains some amazing native ecosystems, including carbon-sequestering mangroves, migratory bird habitats, and a RAMSAR-listed wetland.

However, AGL wants to build an import station for gas. This would destroy these unique environments through increased ship traffic; the usage, pollution, and discharge of bay water that is used in the regasification process; as well as direct and fugitive emissions caused by the project. Furthermore, a hydrogen export station attached to Kawasaki's coal-to-hydrogen trial is being built, further industrialising the bay and jeopardising the regions livability, the environment, and the local ecotourism industry.

Latrobe Valley ‒ ​Our final stop was in the Latrobe Valley, where we were co-hosted by the group of young changemakers ​A New Power ​in a community hall in Traralgon. Members of A New Power discussed the opportunities that transitioning away from coal present for the Latrobe Valley.

In 2016 the Latrobe Valley experienced the abrupt closure of the Hazelwood power station and mine, caused by the station's international owner ENGIE moving away from coal. Now, the Valley, along with Victoria, is beginning the transition away from coal in preparation for the closure of the Yallourn and Loy Yang power stations.

However, whilst some see this as a chance to move to healthier and more sustainable alternatives, pro-coal advocates are pushing to keep the mines open. One such example is Kawasaki's experimental coal-to-hydrogen trial, which is entirely dependent on unreliable waste-carbon injection technology and would keep the coal mines open, perpetuating the impacts of coal dust, consumption of precious water for processing, and extend the danger of another mine fire in the open cut.

South-West Victoria​ ‒ Whilst we could not visit the South-West coastline of Victoria on our tour, they are also a notable frontline. Communities in this area are fighting five new proposed offshore oil and gas fields that have the potential to destroy the ecotourism and environmental health all along this beautiful coastline.

Furthermore, it simply would not have been possible for our collective to visit every community that has the potential to be impacted by conventional gas. If the Victorian government decides to go directly against community sentiment and fails to extend the onshore gas moratorium, which was fought and won alongside the historic ban on fracking, whole regions of native environment, farmland, and regional towns would be suddenly thrust onto the frontline of new gas.

Where to from here?

We learnt a lot going to the fossil frontlines in Victoria and talking to the people living in the communities who are facing these new, daunting projects. One of the things we appreciated by the end of the tour is how these fights are simultaneously diverse, and connected.

If you want to stay updated on our work on these frontlines you can check out Friends of the Earth's No New Fossil Fuels​ campaign:

Also, we know that it isn't enough to just say no to fossil fuels, we also have to fight for a just and sustainable alternative. To learn about and get involved with that you can read up about Friends of the Earth's plan to Transform Victoria: Creating Jobs Whilst Cutting Emissions:

But most importantly, learn about the communities who are on these frontlines and offer your support. Acting on the climate crisis isn't just a chance to stop fossil fuels, it is a chance to face the deeper structural inequalities in our society that have resulted in our current crisis. Listening to and showing solidarity with frontline communities is an integral part of ensuring that our transition to a fossil free world is just and fair.

If you want to get involved with Energy Justice Victoria and the fight to stop new fossil fuels in the state you can check us out at ​​ or drop us a line at [email protected]


Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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