Loss of well paid jobs poses the greatest threat to a collaborative and 'just' transition

The strongest arguments posed by those who want a continuation of coal mining and coal fired power stations in the Hunter are where will the existing workforce in these two industries find such well paid jobs and what will be the economic driver of the region if not thermal coal?.

AGL's Liddell power station - set to close in April 2023.. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

AGL's Liddell power station - set to close in April 2023.. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Trade union submissions to the NSW Parliamentary inquiry into Sustainability of energy supply and resources in NSW highlight these twin concerns with the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) NSW Branch stating in their submission , ' that previous industry transition has seen only a third of workers finding equivalent full-time work post retrenchment. The remaining two thirds are either forced into lower paying, insecure work, or locked out of the labour market entirely.'

The inquiry which is looking at the capacity and economic opportunities of renewable energy as well as trends in energy supply and exports received 200 submissions from organisations, individuals and businesses.

For both the AMWU and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who also provided a submission to the inquiry, the need to ensure future employment for the coal industry workforce was the most important part of any transition planning. These two unions represent the majority of the coal industry workforce.

The CFMEU estimate 21,000 workers were directly employed in the NSW coal mining industry and these workers are typically paid between $100,000-$150,000/year.

In the coal power generation the union estimates 8000 workers paid mostly above $100,000 and ranging towards $200,000/year.

Average annual earnings in Australia are $82,500 - which highlights the attraction of many workers to the mining industry despite the intensive shift-work hours.

"The specific focus for this union is the regional communities around power stations that are highly dependent on them for secure and well paid employment, and for the flow-on benefits to other industries and employment in the local area from those large operations, " wrote Tony Maher, general president CFMEU in the union's submission.

"The problem that we have had with most gestures of recent times about alternative futures for coal power workers and communities is that they are little more than traditional band-aid structural adjustment packages, with a shiny 'Just Transition' marketing label that continues to leave people worse off."

Mr Maher, unlike others who provided submissions, does not believe the renewable energy sector will provide alternative jobs for to the existing coal power and mining workers.

"Because there are few jobs in renewable energy operations and because the greater jobs in construction and installation tend to pay much less and also have cases of significant exploitation."

His submission strongly argues against the case for Australia taking primarily responsibility for emissions from our exported coal describing this as truly bizarre.

But unlike many politicians both the AMWU and the CFMEU in their submissions accept change is coming, if not already happening, and therefore we urgently need to start planning for the inevitable decline in coal power generation and thermal coal extraction.

The shining light for successful transition is Germany where the black coal industry employed 130,000 people in 1990 and today that figure is zero with no forced redundancies.

Mr Maher said in Germany $65 billion was allocated to enable coal regions to have a future that diversified away from coal mining and coal power.

THE AMWU calls for the creation of a local transition authority the Hunter Transition Authority to manage the region's transition from fossil fuels, the need to turn research capability into jobs and the redirecting of coal workers into new industries plus improving the TAFE system to deal specifically with the industrial transition.

Across the submissions there was a general consensus that peak thermal coal had been reached and it was now time to transition from our reliance on coal for jobs and economic activity. The submission from Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states peak thermal coal was most likely reached in 2014.

With thermal coal prices continuing to fall now at $US62/tonne from $US117 in July 2018 and predictions of further falls in the coming years the need to develop a transition platform similar to Germany is considered essential not only by unions but by Singleton Council and any other groups and organisations.

Muswellbrook based Granville Taylor wrote a submission suggesting the Upper Hunter could become world-scale centre for the conversion of waste to energy and a centre for recycling waste materials.

He calls this new industry Hunter Waste Removal and its operations will be based on the existing 'coal chain' that includes an extensive rail network, water supply from Glenbawn Dam, a workforce of 9000 people skilled in heavy engineering and the handling of large amounts of material, the electricity transmission requirements plus a port facility capable of 160m tonnes per annum.

Granville Taylor's future for the Hunter is a hub for waste recycling and waste to energy conversions.

Granville Taylor's future for the Hunter is a hub for waste recycling and waste to energy conversions.

All the existing coal chain components according to Mr Taylor are ideally suited for Hunter Waste Removal.

"Waste that is currently ending up in landfill can be transported to the region and fed into waste-energy plants close to power station sites to provid immediate cover for replacement of electricity from coal-fired power, " he wrote.

He believes the products that can be recycled from the waste would result in new businesses establishing in the region to undertake this work.

"At present the Hunter is recognised as an efficient and extensive supplier of coal . As countries limit the consumption of fossil fuels the Hunter will be required to transition from an economy based on coal production to a broadly-based group of industries which can transform the wide range of wastes created throughout Australia into reusebale material and energy," he wrote.

"The Hunter can satisfy the requirements needed to embark on a major program of waste recycling and waste to energy and at the same time ensure that a valuable workforce is retained in the region."