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Transforming Australia’s Coal Country

What would it mean to create an alternative economy in the Hunter Valley that did not sacrifice the land, the water, and the climate?

The Hunter Valley’s history and its contested future are written in piles of coal buried since the swampy Permian period, when giant conifers fell and were pressed for hundreds of millions of years in layers of hard dark pages. Coal drew the English to Newcastle, but even before the English came, coal was part of the lives and stories of the Awabakal people of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Now that history is being scraped away, loaded onto ships, and sent across the world for burning. The black piles of coal on Newcastle’s Kooragang Island, waiting for ships, presage a dark future to come.

photo of hunter valley coal
In Australia’s Hunter Valley region the coal export industry has doubled in size over the past 20 years. Photo by Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC).

The Hunter region, just north of Sydney, is Australia’s largest regional economy, and it is dominated by coal mining. It produces most of the 160 million tonnes of coal which is exported from Newcastle to Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan annually. At the heart of Hunter Valley, roughly two out of every five jobs are in the mining industry. Everyone in Singleton knows someone whose livelihood comes from the mines. The work is dangerous and the shifts are antisocial, but the pay is very good. In Singleton Shire, median household income is $200 a week higher than the state average, but the proportion of people with a university degree is less than half the state average. (After coal mining, the second highest source of employment is the defense industry, and the third is take-away food service.)

It may be true that thermal coal is in structural decline globally, but that has not affected the approval of new mines and mine-expansion projects in the region so far. In the first two decades of this century the Hunter Valley’s coal export industry doubled in size. Last year, a record volume of coal was exported. (Read about another coal-producing region in Australia, the Latrobe Valley, which contains an estimated 65 billion tons of brown coal in “Life Beyond Coal.”)

Late in 2019, the New South Wales state government approved an application to expand and extend open-cut mining at a mine called Rix’s Creek, which will produce an additional 25 million tonnes of thermal coal until 2040. The mine already contributes to the air pollution that causes asthma and other sickness in nearby Singleton and it will worsen as the mine grows larger. When a local television station asked people on the streets what they thought about it, a woman in high-vis mining gear stated frankly: “We wouldn’t survive without the mines.”

Others know it will be hard survive without change. Short-term gains aside, these mining projects inflict significant local damage. For 20 years the region has been digging deeper into its dependence on coal, stirring conflict over lost farmland, lost villages, and lost bushland. The mines clear critically endangered woodland and dig up the cultural heritage of Wonnarua, Gomeroi, and Wiradjuri people. They alter the hydrology of the Hunter River and its tributaries. A quarter of the Hunter region may be affected by aquifer drawdown by the coal mines.

They empty rural districts of people, driving them away and buying up their properties as they pollute air with noise, light, fine particles, and nitrous oxides. The Wilpinjong coal mine, for example, decimated the tight-knit community of Wollar. Since the mine opened in 2006, the village’s population declined from more than 300 to just 70 today. Those that remain are barely hanging on: the school has closed for lack of students, the local Rural Fire Service unit has disbanded for lack of volunteers, and the fabric of the community is in tatters.

Compounding the local harm, of course, is climate change. Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel and Australia’s coal export industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than every other source of pollution in the country combined. Phasing out coal globally is necessary to achieve the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to below 2°C, as enshrined in the Paris Agreement (which Australia ratified in 2016). Based on the latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions from coal burning need to peak this year, and OECD nations should end coal use entirely by 2030, to meet the commitments made in Paris.

Yet, Australia is still the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal, and has made little progress towards change. The Australian Government’s Resources and Energy quarterly updates seem to assume the temperature goals of the Paris Climate Agreement will not be met, basing forecasts on the International Energy Agency’s “New Policies” scenario, which would lead to global warming of over 2.7 degrees.

When challenged, Australian politicians protest that coal demand will be sated whether or not Australia mines and exports it (for example, see remarks from a former Prime Minister, the current Resources Minister and the current Opposition Leader), but that posture belies the country’s vigorous promotion of coal-burning on the world stage. In December 2016, when the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was considering excluding coal power from its investment mandate, Australia aggressively lobbied to ensure multilateral finance would be directed toward coal power plants in the region.

The Australian and NSW Governments organize trade missions to places like Vietnam attended by Hunter coal suppliers. Vietnam’s air quality is already poor. In 2017, the air quality in Hanoi reportedly met World Health Organization standards on just 38 days out of 365. A recent study found that there would be nearly 70,000 more air-pollution-related deaths every year by 2030 if Southeast Asia’s 406 planned coal power stations were to proceed, with Indonesia and Vietnam the worst affected. Australia aspires to be the coal supplier fuelling this catastrophe. What would it mean for the Hunter region to look beyond coal mines, and create a regional economy that did not demand the sacrifice of land, water and the world? If we want it to, this could be a story of a community that did the unthinkable — planning its own future without coal from the ground up, without the leadership of government or business.

A project called Hunter Renewal has been building community-based momentum for a plan for the region beyond coal. For the past three years, a small group of citizens and activists have been grappling with how to make real the concept of a “just transition” to prepare for declining thermal coal markets, even as governments and businesses tell mining communities there is no livelihood for them but the one they have.

Experiences of coal decline around the world have almost invariably left mining communities struggling with high unemployment and other social scars that last for generations. The best chance a coal mining community has of avoiding this legacy of unemployment and disadvantage is to begin preparing before that decline occurs, and to begin with open social dialogue.

The Hunter Region’s coal industry is not yet in decline: the time is right to plan for a future without coal. Still, politicians and mining companies continue to hold back, complacently telling the public, as the NSW Energy and Environment Minister did in September 2019, that coal will be around for decades to come.

photo of hunter valley wine
In addition to its coal industry, he Hunter Valley has fertile soils, reliable water sources, and a thriving wine industry. Photo by Martin Snicer.

People in the region have begun to discuss alternatives, but the community needs to organize swiftly if it’s going to take control of its own fate. Drawing inspiration from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s “Seat at the Table” process, which saw 750 people take part in grassroots community conversations about the state’s energy future, Hunter Renewal has bypassed politicians to talk directly with people in the region at open-invitation dinners, workshops, stalls, and a summit, out of which a roadmap has been drafted for a locally-led transformation. A parliamentary inquiry has sprouted and local councils and businesses are speaking vocally about the need for diversification plans.

In 2020, the Hunter Renewal project will need to overcome the resistance of politicians and mining companies to map out a practical path towards diversification and a future beyond coal in the richest thermal coal region in the country. One member of the Hunter Renewal working group, Singleton university student Sophie Nichols, knows how hard this will be. So far, she says, there is no transition plan because there is no political leadership. Once the money stops flowing when the coal mines close, she says, “there will be a natural progression” and she’s seeing signs of that already, as drought and bushfires focus people’s minds on climate change. She describes young miners who are fearful of losing the high mining wages they could not command in any other industry, “but they hate it, they absolutely hate it.” It sounds a bit like the whole country’s relationship with coal.

To move past this dynamic, Nichols says, you need dialogue between farmers, miners and environmentalists and “you have to be a bit more broad-minded.” Transforming Australia’s largest thermal coal region will require vision, compromise, and cooperation. That’s also what is needed to restore the land, honor the river, and give Wonnarua people access to and rights over country, while providing jobs and opportunities for the Hunter Valley’s 14,000 coal miners.

The environmentalist’s part of this mutual promise is to remember the generations of men who have mined coal, and died mining it, creating prosperity and securing workers’ rights for so many in the Hunter Region. The miners’ part is to act for the generations that will come after us, and to live now so that their descendants will be grateful, just as we are grateful to those who came before us.

There is plenty of reason to be optimistic. The Hunter has fertile soils, a reliable river and productive groundwater, a versatile port and railway system, a thriving wine industry and expertise in engineering and energy. Most importantly, it is home to people who want the region to have a future, even if thermal coal doesn’t.

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