Hunter Valley ponders a future of dwindling coal

Hunter Valley councils and unions are preparing for a future without coal but say curbs on the Port of Newcastle imposed after the privatisation of ports near Sydney and Wollongong will hold back the transition.

Coal-dominated Singleton and Muswellbrook are among 10 councils in the Hunter Joint Organisation that are stepping up efforts to promote farming, renewable energy and tourism to wean the local economy off fossil fuels.

Singleton mayor Sue Moore at the town's Civic Centre. The mayor is looking to a time when her town is much less dependent on coal.

Singleton mayor Sue Moore at the town's Civic Centre. The mayor is looking to a time when her town is much less dependent on coal.CREDIT:DOMINIC LORRIMER

Impetus for the shift has come in part from the Berejiklian government, which recently released its Future of Coal Statement. It designated new areas for coal exploration but also noted a global shift to lower carbon emissions to address climate change would inevitably force changes for the Hunter.

"Recognising that coal is likely to have a finite lifespan as an energy source, we will work to support coal-dependent communities to diversify for the future, ensuring they remain vibrant places to live with good employment opportunities," Deputy Premier John Barilaro says in the report.

Singleton mayor Sue Moore says her region sends $340 million a year in royalties to the state's coffers, with about half the economy reliant on the 17 active coal mines there.

“It’s not so much about replacing coal, it’s about diversification,” Cr Moore said, noting some mines are getting approval for 20 years more or longer. "The mining industry’s not going to shut down tomorrow.”

Farming, from mushrooms to medicinal cannabis, will underpin the transition, said Cr Moore, who runs Angus cattle on her nearby farm. Education and clean energy will also drive new jobs.

One obstacle, though, will be curbs imposed on the Port of Newcastle's ability to develop its container operations to a level that would rival Port Kembla and Port Botany, following their $5 billion privitisation in 2013.

"There’s no use talking about diversification and opportunities for the Hunter to have access to the rest of the world without having those channels to get those products – whatever they may be – out," she said. “Compensation’s good, compensation’s where things need to start, to get things to happen.”

Read the full article by Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald 13th July 2020