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Coal-rich Hunter Valley ponders jobs future as Asian giants commit to net-zero carbon emissions

At the Lochinvar pub in the NSW Hunter Valley, a couple of power industry workers meet for a drink and ponder the future.

"Everybody's a bit nervous because we are very reliant about coal, coal-fired power," says Gerard Spinks, who has worked for 39 years in the power stations of the upper Hunter.

"All of our other main industries are gone — our steel, shipbuilding, rail, and textiles — so all we've got left is mining and power. Once that goes, we've got no idea what the future holds. "I've got a son who works in an industry solely related to coal and he's got two kids. Where do we go to from there?"

"What about our kids! Exactly," his mate, Carl Kirwin, chimes in.

"I'm fine, Carl's fine," Gerard observes. "We are getting near to retirement age, but it's the generations after that."

These men are anxious to know: how does the economy transition beyond coal?

A 45-minute drive away, the Bayswater and Liddell power coal-fired stations tower over the landscape near the town of Muswellbrook.

A view of the Liddell coal-fired power plant from across a lake, with swans in the foreground
The Hunter Valley's Liddell power plant is scheduled to close in 2023.(ABC News: John Gunn)

The two ageing plants supply about 35 per cent of the state's electricity.

Liddell is scheduled to close in 2023; Baywater in 2035.

As Australia's biggest coal export markets — Japan, South Korea and China — commit to net-zero carbon emissions and shift towards clean energy, the mines of the Hunter appear to be heading for a slow decline.

Most of the Hunter Valley's mines produce thermal coal, which is burnt to create heat and steam to turn turbines in power stations; for decades the region's high-quality coal has been the basis of a huge export industry.

Yet the signs of retreat are already apparent; more mines are closing than expanding. Though the end of coal is decades away, now is the time to begin developing new industries that Australia's coal regions will need to replace the jobs set to disappear.

'Tell them where their jobs are going to be'

About 14,000 people work in the mines of the Hunter Valley.

Although that's a large number, it's still a small share of overall employment in the region, though there are many thousands more workers and businesses that rely indirectly on the coal industry to make a living.

In the upper Hunter, it's an acute issue.

According to the region's local councils, 35 per cent of jobs in the Muswellbrook local government area and more than 50 per cent in the Singleton area flow from the coal industry.

One Nation has made big strides here, but the mayor of Singleton, Sue Moore, bristles at what she sees as a big city assumption that her constituents are all rednecks captured by climate change denialism.

Singleton mayor Sue Moore stands outside the town's Civic Centre
Singleton mayor Sue Moore says locals are concerned about jobs, not the politics of climate change.(ABC News: John Gunn)

She relates a conversation she had at a conference with a councillor from Sydney.

"I sat down at a lunch break … and his words [to me] were, 'What do I have to do to convince Singleton people about climate change?'" she says.

"My reply was simple: 'Tell them where their jobs are going to be.' It's not a conversation about climate change, it's a conversation about jobs, jobs, jobs, and once jobs are solved then other things will flow."

The future is now

The good news is, there's no shortage of groups working on ideas and planning ways that the economy can transition to a future beyond coal — and there are already businesses pointing the way.

Read the full article published in the ABC News 2nd February 2021

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