NSW Hunter Valley looks to US region’s transition from coal

The Newcastle and Hunter region of the New South Wales Central Coast is known for its beaches, wines and mines.

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Coal mining has a long history here – the industry in Australia began in Newcastle in the early 1800s.

But some in the region are now imagining a different future.

The environmental group Lock the Gate recently hosted Lisa Abbott, coordinator of a group working on the transition in the Appalachian region of the United States.

Centred in the state of Kentucky, it was once the country’s largest coal-producing area.

Ms Abbott, head of the Empower Kentucky Project, says coal mining is deeply ingrained in the Appalachian communities.

“Coal mining is more than just a job. It really is a part of our culture. It’s something that people have sacrificed their health (for) in many cases and have taken extraordinary risks to provide for their families.”

Once a significant employer, the coal industry in the Appalachian region now supports only a few jobs.

The community is in the midst of transitioning away from coal.

Ms Abbott, who works with the social justice organisation Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, says the Empower Kentucky Project is working to reshape the region’s economy.

“That includes supporting local agriculture, supporting the arts and tourism in the region. We believe there’s a lot of opportunity in energy efficiency and helping to retrofit homes and businesses to use less energy, which, in turn, keeps more money in the local community and creates jobs.”

In Appalachia, much of the coal has already been mined, but that is not the case in the Hunter Valley.

New data shows the global demand for New South Wales coal is continuing at near record levels.

In 2016, exports increased by 1.5 million tonnes.

The industry accounts for around 13,000 jobs in the Hunter.

But local miner Kerry Moir, who has worked in the industry for over 35 years, says the industry’s reach is far greater.

“A lot of people supply here to the coalmines, repair gear for the coalmines, do maintenance for the coalmines. So, if the coalmines go down, in the short term, I think a lot of people will be out of work in Newcastle.”

The Federal Member for the Hunter, Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon, says coal mining remains crucial to the economy but a transitional fuel is needed to eventually move away from coal.

He suggests gas is the logical alternative.

“Our future is in renewables, but the transition to renewables, given the technology constraints, will be a long one, and we need a transitional fuel. Obviously, that’s gas. The Hunter is so well-placed to provide that gas generation. We have the land and the buffer zones of the existing coal-fired generators. The high-voltage transmission lines are there. We have the skilled workforce.”

But Lock the Gate Hunter coordinator Steve Phillips says he disagrees.

“Switching from one unsustainable, unreliable fossil fuel to another is not what our region wants. We want sustainable industries. The agricultural industries that have always been here can grow back. Innovative industries in engineering and social services already exist in the Hunter. We are a leader in these things. These can transition us away from coal if they’re allowed to grow. “

What the region does want is employment, and Ms Abbott says that needs to be the focus.

“Regardless of your views about coal and the coal industry, all of us need to be thinking about what’s a just transition for these workers and communities.”