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The jobs transition out of coal in Western Australia

What’s the future for coalminers? Thanks to some deep dive work from Beyond Zero Emissions and collaboration with unions, the prospects are quite positive. Check out the Western Australian coal mining town of Collie, for instance.


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More than 1000 coal mining workers in the Western Australian town of Collie could transition into secure, well-paid jobs in sustainable industries, according to a report released last week.

The report is the first in a series from Beyond Zero Emissions, a climate change think tank that’s been cooking up solutions to the climate crisis since 2006.

It’s latest body of work will take its sector-specific research to a local level – picking out suitable zero-carbon opportunities for regional communities that are particularly reliant on fossil fuel industries such as coal mining.

First off the starting blocks is the coal mining town of Collie in the south west of Western Australia.

According to Lachlan Rule, the report’s author and project lead for BZE’s Repowering our Regions work, the town is a good case study because it’s at a crossroads in its transition, with recent closure announcements and job losses in Collie’s coal industry creating urgency to secure a future for the town’s workers.

Rule also told The Fifth Estate it’s a small and isolated place, and ideal to learn to work in partnership with communities, unions and traditional land owners.

“Collie has an incredibly exciting range of economic possibilities at its fingertips. Its infrastructure, skills, natural resources and location make it a great spot to develop a lot of sustainable industries WA currently lacks.”

No easy feat moving regional communities out of coal

The WA town is home to 9000 people and 1250 jobs in the coal industry. The state has been powered by coal mined from Collie and its surrounds since the 1880s.

As such, Rule says there’s “healthy scepticism” in coal mines about making the transition to clean energy, which is why the think tank is all about an industry transition rather than substituting old jobs with new ones.

A boilermaker in a coal mine is going to have trouble picturing themselves in making coffee for people on bike trails, for instance.

“That doesn’t resonate with people – they can’t see themselves as part of that.”

The key is to describe a series of industries that people can see themselves working in.

That’s why the report wants Collie to remain “at the heart of the energy system by supplying and supporting the rollout of renewable energy in WA.”

Recycling lithium battery waste could yield strong revenue

The report found that with the right polices, including legislating a 100 per cent renewable SWIS (South West Interconnected System) target by 2030, 870 high-value manufacturing jobs could be created.

This could include pumped hydro, with the retired coal pits in the Collie region perfect for the well-established storage technology.

There’s also potential for Western Australia to become a leader in battery and PV recycling, processing and reuse, providing critical long term employment.

The researchers found that recycling lithium battery waste rather than letting it go offshore or to landfill could provide Australia an estimated $813 million to $3 billion worth of resources a year by 2030.

Sustainable construction materials are another opportunity 

Another promising prospect for Collie is in sustainable construction materials, which will simultaneously decarbonise the state’s buildings and infrastructure.

The region is well-placed to take advantage of this emerging industry because it has access to raw inputs such large reserves of fly ash for low-carbon cement, plantation forests for engineered wood products and an “untapped” local supply of scrap steel for recycling.

How about breaking down ships for recycling? Or remediating coal mines though the Noongar people?

 Other interesting jobs could be in breaking down ships for recovering materials and remediating and repairing the landscape on coal mine sites, which Rule says the Noongar people, the Traditional Custodians of southwest Australia, will be best-placed to lead.

Rule also says it’s not always going to be a straight transfer from fossil fuel to green industries, but this is where a rapid growth trajectory and economic opportunities are expected.

So around 1750 jobs all up – 500 more than coal

Taken together, the opportunities listed in the report have the potential to create over 1750 jobs in Collie, 500 more than the 1250 positions in the coal industry.

This will amount to a $13.4 plus billion boost in economic opportunities, and avert more than 14 million tonnes of CO?-e a year by 2030. 

Step one: Secure social licence, get help from keen unions

Before starting the transition the program will need a social licence through support from workers and the community.”

Rule says that unions have been “really, really keen to participate in this conversation”.

“They can see the writing on the wall and there’s a real willingness for union members to see a positive tangible plan.”

According to Greg Busson, secretary of the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union) Western Australian District Mining and Energy Division, Collie’s coal workers have kept the lights on in WA for decades and “deserve to be supported as the energy system changes.

“Serious planning has to start now to make sure there are well-paid work and training opportunities ready for the community into the future.”

The six remaining steps in the seven-part roadmap

After securing social licence for the transition, the researchers call for a 100 per cent state wide renewable energy target by 2030.

To ensure the benefits of this filter down to local communities, the report recommends designating all renewable developments “strategic projects” under the Western Australian Industry Participation Strategy – a government program for promoting the diversification and growth of the state’s economy by targeting supply opportunities for local industry.

The report suggests building “common user facility” (CUF) for renewables in the area, which is a multipurpose site for everything from high-tech manufacturing to sporadic work such as shipbuilding.

“A Renewable WA CUF would ensure the maximum possible share of investment during the transition was spent in Western Australia, providing direct jobs for locals and creating a multiplier effect as locally invested funds circulate through other sectors of the economy,” the report states.

The researchers also advocate for a $2.5 billion fund to drive investment in sustainable industries over 10 years.

It also encourages the redirection of existing industry support away from fossil fuel and “boom/bust mineral developments” towards emerging clean industries.

Up next for Beyond Zero Emissions will be NSW’s Hunter Region, which Lachlan Rule says will be a bigger challenge because compared to Collie, there are far more jobs in coal mining in the region.


Story by Poppy Johnston for the The Fifth Estate, 26 November 2019

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