... consistent with the the national approach to economic, environmental and social stewardship.

Discovery of Coal

It is often incorrectly assumed that the story of mining in Victoria began with the discovery of gold in 1851.  While this account fits into the narrative of the gold rush it is incorrect.  The real origin of mining in the State began well over a decade earlier with the exploration for, and discovery of, a less glamorous but no less important resource: coal. 

In the 1800s coal was powering the industrial revolution and the march of progress.  For the Australian colonies, coal was essential as it would provide the energy and industrial capability required to develop and thrive.  As such exploration for coal was a priority for the colonial government.  While coal had been discovered in a number of locations in NSW, most significantly near what would become Newcastle, the colonial government of NSW knew that a local source of coal would be hugely beneficial for the fledgling settlements in the Port Phillip District, which would later become Victoria. In December 1826 an expedition from the small military and convict settlement of Corinella on Western Port Bay set out to explore the area for coal. The small group was led by the explorer William Hovell, with two soldiers and two convicts in tow.  The group was successful and discovered a coal seam along the Bass Strait shoreline near what is now Cape Paterson. Making coal the first mineral resource identified in what would become Victoria[1].

The first attempts to develop the resource potential of the Cape Patterson coal seams began in 1841.  These attempts were ultimately unsuccessful as encounters with the local indigenous population resulted in hostilities from both sides and as the coal seams were not as thick as expected, the enterprise was soon abandoned.  While there is some historical evidence to suggest coal from these seams was worked for domestic use by settlers in the Western Port Bay region, they would not be commercially exploited for decades when they would eventually become part of the Wonthaggi State Coal mine[2].

In July 1851, after three years of planning Victoria was formally established as an independent colony of the Crown and CJ La Trobe was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor.  Due to the reliance of the new colony on coal which was shipped from Newcastle, Lieutenant Governor La Trobe convinced the Colonial Government of New South Wales to offer a reward of £1000 (a substantial sum of money at the time) for the establishment of a successful coal mine in Victoria.  Despite the best efforts of La Trobe, none of the attempted coal mining ventures established in Victoria took off in the 1850s and Victoria’s reliance on coal from NSW continued[3].  

Exploration continued however and in the late 1870s over 30 sites were discovered, including at what have become the Melbourne suburbs of Altona and Newport. Despite these finds Victoria was still dependent on black coal from NSW as its primary source of energy, as at the time the technology to use brown coal effectively for power generation was still in its infancy[4]. Despite this technological barrier, the area to be known as the Latrobe Valley had already been identified as the site of possibly the world’s largest lignite deposits.

Following a number of false starts the development of Victoria’s brown coal reserves began in earnest in 1921 with the establishment of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, headed by the celebrated First World War General, Sir John Monash. Monash tackled his new role with the same tenacity and success that had won him renown on the battlefields of France. The Yallourn power plant and brown coal mine in the Latrobe Valley began providing power to Melbourne in June 1924. Monash was able to rapidly develop the Victorian brown coal fired power industry in part from technology he had brought back from Germany, where brown coal was already used extensively for power generation. The success of the initial Latrobe Valley power station proved that Victoria’s brown coal reserves could provide the State with the electricity generation capacity to become a centre of manufacturing, industry and business.

Over time the power generation and coal mining activities in the Latrobe Valley have been expanded significantly. The Latrobe Valley area now has four major power stations, Yallourn, Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B and Hazelwood, along with the Energy Brix station which is also the site of briquette manufacturing. These power stations currently have the capacity to produce over six and a half thousand megawatts of electricity, accounting for approximately 85 per cent of the State’s electricity[5].

[1] Vines, J. (2008) Coal Mining Heritage Study in Victoria, Heritage Council of Victoria
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Parbo, A. (1992) Down Under: Mineral Heritage in Australasia. The Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
[5] Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Earth Resources, Coal http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/coal