Hundreds of climate activists are descending on Australia’s Latrobe Valley this weekend with a message for the owner of the most-polluting coal-fired power plant in the industrialized world: Your social license to continue burning brown coal in dinosaurs like the Hazelwood Power Station has been revoked.
The mass rally and civil disobedience to shut down Hazelwood comes as a new analysis finds Australia has passed the U.S. to lead the world in CO2 emissions per capita, courtesy of its heavy reliance on coal.
Under the banner “Switch Off Hazelwood, the protesters will be delivering a “community decommission order” to International Power Australia, says organizer Louise Morris.
Their goal, supported by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, is to highlight the adverse climate impact of coal-fired power generation and encourage a national shift to renewable energy.
“By switching us off reliance on coal based electricity we can open up the playing field for a suite of renewable energy that have a future in a carbon constrained world, provide more jobs and are ultimately climate friendly,” Morris said.
“We are going backwards here in Australia, and we need a strong and active community-based climate movement to turn us back on track towards safe climate solutions. Coal is the wrong way to go. We know the money, technology and expertise are ready but we are lacking political will and political vision. This action will help to create that political will.”
Located in the heart of Australia’s brown coal fields, Hazelwood has been operating since 1965 and is among the nation’s oldest and dirtiest still in service. According to the event organizers, the plant is responsible for 17 million tons of carbon each year—15% of the state of Victoria’s total emissions.
Hazelwood was to be decommissioned in 2005, but International Power lobbied the state government to extend its operating license to 2030—effectively locking in years of additional emissions.
The government’s decision to extend the life of the power plant was met with harsh criticism from national environmental groups, particular with WWF research listing Hazelwood as the most polluting power station in the industrialized world. The plant’s ‘world’s worst’ status is due to the fact that it burns brown coal, which is three times more carbon intensive than black coal.
Disenchanted by state government policy and dissatisfied with the federal government’s climate change bill, some within the environment movement feel that direct action is a necessary step.
“We’ve tried all the other tools in our toolbox,” Morris said. “We have petitioned, wrote letters, held community meetings, voted for the climate, rallied in the cities and walked against warming. And from that we got a policy that committed to a 5 percent reduction in national emissions by 2020.”
Activists have been targeting Hazelwood for months with protests. In May, seven Greenpeace activists scaled the fence and chained themselves to machinery until police cut them free and arrested them for trespassing. On the more extreme end, ELF warned International Power’s CEO that his “property will not remain safe” as long as Hazelwood “continues to pollute at such an inexcusable level.”
Morris argues that peaceful protests like this weekend’s allow the community to hold governments accountable for “their lack of action” on climate change.
Not everyone is supportive of direct actions, though, particularly when the activities disrupt commercial operations through non-violent protests and civil disobedience. Late last week, senior state politician Robert Clark labeled the activists “extremists” and called for the state Energy Minister “to act urgently” to protect the Hazelwood Power Station from disruption.
Morris believes that such attempts to dissuade public participation have backfired and expects hundreds of people at the power plant’s gates, 90 miles southeast of Melbourne.
“The inflammatory comments from various factions of politics and the coal industry are helping us to get more attention and support from ordinary Australians who care about climate change and want to see a transition to renewable energy,” Morris said.
“We have succeeded in putting government and the coal industry on notice. The time of the community looking the other way while they pollute, and get cash handouts to do so, has passed.”
Switch Off Hazelwood is part of the larger Just Transition campaign, a grassroots effort to shift Latrobe Valley’s regional economy away from a coal-based economy by creating a manufacturing hub for renewable energy. Morris explains that the Just Transition team is “working with unions, renewable energy groups, NGOs and scientists to map a path forward for the local community near Hazelwood to become a renewable energy manufacturing hub.”
Greenpeace spokesman Simon Roz is supportive of such community efforts to transform the Latrobe Valley but says the government needs to step up to the challenges of climate change now, and in the process put people to work in green jobs.
“The government should ensure that workers have new, secure and well-paid jobs in sustainable industries in the region,” he said.
International Power, which fought the Australian government’s efforts to create a carbon emissions law this year, didn’t respond to recent questions about the protest, however, a company spokesperson released a statement when the rally was first announced, saying:
International Power respects people’s right to express their views, but “their actions must not be allowed to compromise the safe working of the mine and power station which provides up to 25 percent of Victoria’s energy supplies. … We purchased this business in 1996 on the basis it having a 40-year life, and we have invested hundreds of millions (of dollars) in thermal efficiency and environmental improvements since.”
CEO Graeme York also sent Hazelwood staff a memo last month saying he was in contact with police about the rally and would use all legal avenues to put down any illegal actions aimed at ”hurting our business,” The Age reports.