Port of Newcastle chair Roy Green says Hunter can't rely on being protected from history's headwinds

Thousands of workers are employed in the industry. Generations of families have made a living from this in-demand resource over more than two centuries.

Coal has been an important ingredient of the region's economic success. Yet the increased recognition of climate change and the shift to cleaner energy sources presents us with a challenge.

Ours may be the highest quality coal in the market, but this will not protect us from the day it is no longer needed.

Coal will remain a major export for the Hunter for some time to come, but this must be seen alongside the significant growth and impact of renewable technologies. Even those unconvinced by the climate science cannot ignore that a global transition is underway.

The debate is only about the speed at which this transition is proceeding, and what we should do in response. Ignoring the challenge is to ignore the opportunities, of which there are many. The main opportunity lies in the further diversification of the Hunter's economy. This does not happen overnight. It takes years to create the necessary momentum and decades to fully take effect.

We know the road ahead will be bumpy. The longer we take to begin the process, the rougher the ride. The good news is that we've been here before. Two decades ago Newcastle embarked on a hugely challenging transition of its industrial base with the closure of the BHP steelworks.

The debate is only about the speed at which this transition is proceeding.

Yet since then we have seen strong jobs growth in health, education and professional services, as well as more specialised manufacturing, agribusiness, construction and retail.

Newcastle is justifiably proud of its extraordinary transformation. But it didn't happen automatically through the "invisible hand" of the market. Prior to the closure, business leaders, unions and the community worked together on a transition plan.

There was a shared commitment not only to identify new employment pathways for steelworkers but also to map out future areas of competitive advantage for the region.

However, we cannot allow this success to breed complacency. Changing circumstances require us once again to prepare for another transition, this one possibly even more fundamental and far-reaching than the last. Even from a narrow risk management point of view, the best path forward is to prepare for the worst-case scenario. And once again we will need a coordinated approach across the region. We cannot prepare in isolation.

Done well, the Hunter could quickly become the exemplar for the entire nation, as before with the transition out of steelmaking. It will also call upon leadership and vision in local communities and business, including by the resources sector itself and related industries.

No one will do it for us, though governments can certainly assist with infrastructure, training programs, entrepreneurial precincts and removal of barriers to the growth of new industries.

Already AGL is preparing its community for the replacement of an ageing coal-fired power station with renewable energy, offering new jobs and opportunities. The University of Newcastle has switched to solar power. Liberty OneSteel has a "green steel" model, and the CSIRO Energy Hub is working on industrial scale hydrogen for export. These examples barely scratch the surface of the possibilities.

Port of Newcastle has an important role too. As long-term custodians of our "global gateway", we have a duty to facilitate current trade while pursuing new opportunities to grow and diversify.

The Port is well placed to do so. Its rail and road connections are the envy of increasingly congested capital cities, and it has the former steelworks site at Mayfield ready to go for a container terminal. Moreover, its deepwater channel is operating at 50 per cent of capacity and could make Newcastle the first and possibly only port able to accommodate the Ultra Large Container Vessels that will soon become the world standard for container shipping.

There are also significant prospects associated with the shift to new energy sources, such as hydrogen. All of these opportunities fuel the regional NSW economy and create jobs up and down the supply chain.

Change can feel threatening. The coal industry provides employment for many people and has traditionally been a major driver of regional investment. We should never take lightly the responsibility we have to protect communities, the environment and the economy.

The best way we can protect our shared interests is to look over the horizon. If we work together now as a region, we will be well equipped to prepare for the future.

 

Roy Green is Port of Newcastle chair and University of Newcastle conjoint professor.

Article published in the Newcastle Herald 25/05/19