The NSW Independent Planning Commission recently decided on the underground coal mine Dartbrook. They are sitting on a few more decisions about upcoming open cut thermal coal projects.
In its decision, they approved the mine to continue operations until 2022, but did not support a 5-year extension recommended by the NSW Department of Planning.
The justification of the decision and reasons for not supporting the five-year extension are essential reading for everyone in the Hunter Valley.
In the words of the IPC, this project "would not be in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development or inter-generational equity; and, as such, is not in the public interest."
Air pollution in Singleton and Muswellbrook is currently at levels never seen since the monitoring network was established. Whilst this tends to bring the usual excuses of dust from inland, sea salt and bushfires, we actually know from research that over half of our air pollution in the Singleton and Muswellbrook region is created from fossil fuel combustion processes, diesel exhaust and activities associated with open cut thermal coal mining. We also know from research that there is a measurable and direct negative effect on our health when the air pollution increases.
The Independent Planning Commission cited concerns about air pollution, water security, social costs and economic impacts of Dartbrook. These however are not just affected directly by these projects. They are arguably affected, for generations to come, indirectly and fiercely by ongoing climate heating and extreme weather events as a result of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions.
We are at a time in history where a combined group of scientists from 195 countries have accepted we will not be able to stop climate heating. The evidence is irrefutable that we have caused this due to uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions. We now need to limit the damage. The goal now is to limit average land and sea-based warming to below 2 degrees. In doing so, we will still lose many species to extinction, most of our coral reefs, and create larger areas of famine and water insecurity than we already suffer.
Heatwaves are responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other natural disaster. The international medical community is in agreeance that climate change is the single biggest future health risk we face.
Unfortunately, as this issue gets worse and requires more urgent action, the conspiracy theorists who deny the issue and the actions required become louder. The Australian, NSW and Hunter Valley leadership we rely on to guide us through this dangerous period is disappointingly absent and refuses to acknowledge the experts. In doing so they are leaving our children a life of extreme heatwaves, food insecurity and water shortages.
Whilst those who seek to profit the most from thermal coal make a last-ditch attempt to save the industry, we are seeing movement away on a much larger scale. Thermal coal is becoming a stranded asset, with almost all major investment and funding sources for thermal coal mining announcing plans to divest. The worlds largest insurance companies have also announced their intention to no longer insure thermal coal projects, as they know the cost of inaction far outweighs the costs required to cut emissions.
The status quo is changing. It is becoming harder and harder to justify thermal coal combustion for our energy generation as we have cheaper alternatives that don't emit greenhouse gases. In almost all the countries we export thermal coal to, the price of megawatt equivalent new solar projects is lower than new thermal coal. Norway, with a population of 5 million gets almost 100% of its energy from hydropower. Scotland generated enough wind energy in the first half of 2019 to power double the amount of homes on the grid. Despite what those with vested interests will tell you, a firmed renewable energy grid works "when the sun isn't shining, and wind isn't blowing". Australia has the unique geography and land size to create a mixed grid of renewable energy rather than relying predominantly on only one.
Our region has proudly contributed more than most for Australia's resources boom and energy generation. However, the increasing casualisation of our thermal coal mining workforce is the proverbial canary tweeting at us that these jobs are not sustainable long term.
If Singleton and Muswellbrook are to survive the transition away from a thermal coal energy generation future, we need to start diversifying our workforce. It has taken Hazelwood 2 years to recover from the closure of their power plant, and they only had a few months' notice. We have 3 years notice for Liddell.
We should be proud of what we've contributed to the state, but it's time to move on, for not just our sake, but as the IPC put it, for intergenerational equity.
Dr Bob Vickers