Opinion pieces


October 17, 2018

The culture war around coal must end. It uses coal miners and their families as debating props. It insults our community and allows certain politicians to ignore the important policy questions that we must answer.

When he tried to enter the energy debate on Wednesday, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet displayed the same numerical incompetence that led to his failure to knock off fellow NSW Minister Ray Williams.

He also demonstrated the arrogance of someone who lives in Sydney’s leafy northern suburbs when he lectured us in the Hunter on what we should think about energy and coal.

Mr Perrottet conflated the debate about the next generation of power stations in Australia with the debate about coal exports. They are completely separate topics.

Hunter’s existing coal fired power stations will operate until the end of their commercial lives; the question is what replaces them? The Australian Energy Market Operator has found that the cheapest form of replacement energy is renewable energy made reliable when backed up by pumped hydro.

The energy companies and independent experts are backing this finding up. Ultimately it’s up to energy companies to put their money where their mouth is and the last coal fired power station began construction at the turn of the century.

By arguing against renewable energy replacing these power stations when they reach the end of their commercial life, Mr Perrottet is arguing for higher power prices and higher pollution.

Regarding coal exports, I welcome the thousands of jobs that our coal exports provide and I always highlight the fact that our region was built on the sacrifices of coal miners. The vast majority of Hunter coal is exported and this will continue for decades.

However, we have to recognise that global demand for thermal coal (that is coal for energy production), peaked in 2014 and fell by 8 per cent in the next two years. Global demand is in structural decline.

There is good news that the export of Australian thermal coal has increased significantly as overseas power stations replace coal from other countries with Australian coal which is generally better quality. In fact, since 2012 Australian thermal coal exports have risen by almost 27 per cent. That’s great news in terms of jobs and our local economy.

Nevertheless, over time as other nations shift to renewable energy and the global thermal coal trade declines further, Australian thermal coal exports will at some stage start to fall. This is why we need to start planning for this eventuality. This eventuality will not come to pass next year or the year after that, but over the decades to come.

Metallurgical coal makes up 65% of our Australia’s coal exports. We will continue exporting it for a long time to come as there is no other way of manufacturing steel at an industrial scale.

We need this coal for the clean energy revolution. It takes over 200 tonnes of metallurgical coal to produce one wind turbine. Based upon the best projections, Australia will have to export an extra 15.5 million tonnes of coking coal in the next decade to build these new wind farms.

What Mr Perrottet and other Liberal politicians are trying to do is turn support for coal into some sort of culture war, where you’re either pro-coal or you’re pro-renewables and presumably anti-worker and live on soy lattes in Balmain.

This simplistic and frankly idiotic approach is insulting to the nearly 13,000 Hunter coal miners, their families and the communities that depend upon those jobs.

If Mr Perrottet wants to support coal miners, he should tell his Federal mates not to try to undermine the recent Federal Court decision that calls ‘permanent casuals’ in the mining industry for the rort that it is.

If Mr Perrottet wants to help coal miners he should support Labor’s proposal to stop exploitation of labour hire miners who get paid much less than permanent miners for doing the same job.

If Mr Perrottet wants to fight for coal workers and their families, he should support the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign to give workers and their unions more power to get decent wage rises, improved conditions and greater safety.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Newcastle Herald on 17 October 2018