Hunter to emerge from the dust

WHEN Lieutenant John Shortland came across a clump of coal around Newcastle in September 1797 he famously proclaimed it would be “a great acquisition to the settlement”.
Hunter to emerge from the dust Hunter to emerge from the dust Hunter to emerge from the dust Hunter to emerge from the dust Hunter to emerge from the dust

The Hunter is at a cross-roads with the competing interests of coal mining, agriculture and renewable energy all vying for predominance.

His statement has rung true for two centuries, with Newcastle and the settlements around the Hunter River - which was then called Coal River - flourishing and developing into the industrial powerhouse of New South Wales.

It is now an open question whether coal will carry the region for the next century.

The Hunter region - which is in the midst of a state by-election brought about by resignation of its sitting National Party member for inappropriate behaviour in the NSW Parliament House in Macquarie Street - is at a cross-roads with the competing interests of coal mining, agriculture and renewable energy all vying for predominance.

The outcome of the Upper Hunter by-election on May 22 may be a harbinger for the direction the Hunter Valley will take, as state and federal policy around coal and the future of the many employees and businesses that rely on the industry is being set in place.

In a three-part series, Australia's Mining Monthly investigates the political, economic and environmental forces that will shape the region's future.

The NSW Minerals Council's latest annual member Expenditure Survey has found that in the past financial year the 28 participating mining companies directly injected $6.2 billion into the Hunter economy, supporting more than 13,000 Hunter mining jobs and more than 3400 local mining supplier businesses.

NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee said these survey results showed despite the COVID-19 pandemic, mining's contribution to the Hunter economy in 2020 remained strong, with jobs relatively stable, more direct mining spending, and an increase in the number of Hunter mining supplier businesses.

"While the 13,000 Hunter mining jobs supported by our member companies was around the same as the previous year, the $6.2 billion in direct spending in the Hunter represented an increase of around $800 million," he said.

"In addition, the 3400 mining supplier businesses in the past financial year represented an increase of 126 businesses compared to the previous year.

"The survey results once again confirm the Hunter's ongoing status as the biggest mining region in NSW. Our mining member companies directly spent $15 billion in total in NSW in 2019-20 and the $6.2 billion in direct spending in the Hunter was the largest of any region."

The Upper Hunter Valley proposals for new coal projects have a combined output of 98 million tonnes per year, according to Australia Institute research.

These proposals for major new coal mines in NSW, and in the Upper Hunter in particular, follow the doubling of production from 130 million tonnes in 2000 to 260Mt in 2014.

However, Australia Institute chief economist Richard Dennis believes NSW production peaked in 2014 and the boom will not be coming back.

The NSW Nationals, led by deputy premier John Barilaro, is presenting ambiguous messages about state government support for coal, given the different levels of support and forecasts of the future of coal.

On the one hand he announced Nationals candidate David Layzell at Glencore's Ravensworth open cut coal mine in the Upper Hunter Valley and on the other hand he is privately reassuring grape growers and horse stud owners that the National party is all for agriculture and farming interests.

He also needs to cater to elements in the NSW Liberal Party aligned with Premier Gladys Berejiklian who are in favour of promoting renewable energy at the expense of coal.

"Recognising that coal is likely to have a finite lifespan as an energy source, we will work to support coal-dependent communities to diversify for the future, ensuring they remain vibrant places to live with good employment opportunities," Barilaro said.

However, the Liberal National Party Coalition's split views when it comes to coal were on clear display when Liberal party "moderate" environment minister Matt Kean invited former prime minister and factional ally Malcolm Turnbull to chair the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board.

One of the first things Turnbull said on his appointment was that the Hunter should place a moratorium on coal mine approvals.

After some furious backroom recriminations, Turnbull was dropped from the position.

The state government's Strategic Statement on Coal Exploration and Mining in NSW is being used as its blueprint for future coal mine development.

It is hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of coal mining regions such as the Hunter.

One of its key aims is "supporting diversification of coal-reliant regional economies to assist with the phase-out of thermal coal mining".

"The NSW government will continue to work to strengthen regional economies, including the development and implementation of location-specific plans to diversify those heavily dependent on coal mining," the statement says.

"There will be regional variations in the profile of coal production.

"Some areas will see gradual decline over the next few years, while others could see increased coal production in the short to medium term.

"We will adopt a systematic, place-based approach to transition planning, starting with the regions that are expected to experience the earliest coal production declines and the Upper Hunter region given the importance of its coal industry."

Turning to the federal government, prime minister Scott Morrison announced in March that the Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing Roadmap would support jobs across Australia, particularly in resource rich regions such as the Hunter.

Significantly, Morrison chose to announce the 10-year roadmap at Tomago, which is an expanding manufacturing base servicing the Hunter Valley coal sector.

Morrison said the roadmap would show how businesses could capitalise on Australia's access to resources, which would be needed to manufacture many new technologies.

Applications under the government's $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative were also made available to projects in the priority area, to help manufacturers scale-up production, commercialise products and tap into global supply chains.

"Our $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy is at the heart of our JobMaker plan and it's focused on growing our entire manufacturing sector," Morrison said.

"Our Modern Manufacturing Initiative will help position Australia as not just a global leader in the resources sector but also in the manufacturing of the technology used, as well as turning the raw materials into value-added products.

"The funding will help unlock investment from industry to help build manufacturing capability and competitiveness in Australia's resources sector while taking advantage of a significant global growth sector."

The federal government strategy was welcomed by METS Ignited CEO Adrian Beer.

"Our resources sector is recognised as world-class, with our local research capability unpinning our global leadership position," he said.

"The Resource Technology and Critical Minerals Processing Roadmap provides Australian technology and innovation sector the opportunity to commercialise this capability within our local [Hunter Valley and Newcastle] economy.

"We welcome this announcement from the Australian government as a turning point to drive economic value from the technology within our resources sector and creates valuable products for both local and export markets."