A pint with Nathan Tinkler

ASTON Resources founder Nathan Tinkler talks with Australian Longwall magazine editor Lou Caruana about coal mining, Maules Creek, NRL, horses and mine managers.
A pint with Nathan Tinkler A pint with Nathan Tinkler A pint with Nathan Tinkler A pint with Nathan Tinkler A pint with Nathan Tinkler

Nathan Tinkler

Lou Caruana

Published in the September 2011 Australian Longwall Magazine

Australian Longwall: Would you say owning a coal mine is a passion, like owning a thoroughbred horse or a champion NRL team?

Nathan Tinkler: It is absolutely a business. If you don’t operate these things seriously they have the potential to bite you hard.

AL: What are the similarities and differences?

NT: All need to be operated and taken seriously but thankfully there are no jockeys in the coal business. You don’t want to do all that work and preparation into producing coal and then hand it over to a 50kg man with a chip on his shoulder who is getting paid regardless of the result he delivers.

AL: How do you think NSW shapes up as a coal mining state compared to Queensland?

NT: NSW is behind. Everyone seems to think they can impose new taxes and royalties but mention any change of legislation to bring the mining act into 2011 and it just seems too big a task.

The current land use debate in the Hunter Valley between agriculture and mining will not resolve anything.

The issues with mining in the Hunter Valley directly tie to rehabilitation and the distinct lack of it by all mining companies. Some of those pits have been open for 50 years and have not been rehabilitated.

It is unacceptable and we now have 50 metre high moonscapes between Singleton and Scone 80km), and Singleton and Denman (70km).

For all the hype in the media we are not actually producing much more coal in NSW than we were 10 years ago. Our social, community and environmental issues in the Hunter Valley are driven from the cumulative impact of overburden removal over tens of decades.

So while coal production has not increased greatly there has been a hell of a lot of overburden removed and piled high over agricultural land. That land is not useable until that overburden is put back in the hole.

Plantings with grass seed is not rehabilitation. These companies are not being made to deal with their obligations and legislation needs to change to deal with it.

The US went through this a decade ago and got a stronger and more social and community minded industry for it.

All mining towns get these days is overburden stacked 50m high around them and 1000 bed camps! Is it any wonder it is becoming impossible to advance new projects?

These are largely mining communities but that does not mean they need to be reminded of it every time they get in a car. The Hunter Valley is being ruined by a lack of governance on rehabilitation and miners are showing little to no social or community awareness in this regard while the dust and health impacts continue to accumulate.

AL: Do you think the Gunnedah Basin could develop into the new Hunter Valley?

NT: I believe it can and it is important that it is not allowed to become the eyesore that the Hunter Valley has become.

AL: Have you spent much time underground in longwall coal mines?

NT: No I haven’t. YouTube is about the limit of my experience with longwall mining.

AL: What steps remain before Aston Resources’ Maules Creek gets into production?

NT: Aston is still working its way through the complex maze of permitting and infrastructure.

While I believe they are making solid progress on this it is hard to believe we are a developed country with the speed things move.

I don’t think anyone has been employed in the Department of Planning for 20 years and NSW now officially has no path for approvals for major projects.

AL: Are you encouraged by Australian Rail Track Corporation’s recent decision to commit $284 million to link the Gunnedah Basin to the port of Newcastle through the Liverpool Ranges?

NT: I am. I just wish they would get on with it. While the money is committed there is a reluctance to spend it. There is still not enough forward planning.

The infrastructure planning in NSW is such that by the time approval is given it is already insufficient and outdated.

The challenge is to not let the Gunnedah Basin become caught up in that archaic planning. Plan for the future, let’s move forward and not close off opportunity.

We really do approach these things like a third world country.

AL: Do you think the big coal players have too much port capacity at Newcastle’s Port Waratah?

NT: Before NCIG [Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group] every producer or newcomer was basically asking Coal and Allied and Xstrata shareholders to build them port access. Hence it never gets done.

How PWCS [Port Waratah Coal Services] can be called an open facility is beyond me. Coal and Allied do not have a strong record of production.

I think they were after 30Mt in 2004 and that is still a milestone. Xstrata can deliver the tonnes but I am not sure they have the asset base to deliver the tonnes forecast.

NCIG is hardly any better. It is currently a myth of a coal port producing very little coal. The silence around the production levels is deafening. On top of that it gives Newcastle a black eye with a new single lane bridge linking half a million people to their local airport!

Well done NCIG – it was a good way to piss off the community.

While all the producers exporting through NCIG are waiting to get port access perhaps they could rehabilitate some of their mines?

AL: What about Abbot Point? Does that look like a worthy investment? Or is that going to be too expensive?

NT: Obviously too expensive, someone paid more. Good luck to them

AL: What’s harder, finding a good mine manager or finding a good NRL coach?

NT: Mine manager by a long way. Too many are spoilt from working with cost profiles and overheads that breed incompetence.

Our mining industry is being consolidated and that means most are being developed in large organisations where accountability is something that exists only in head office where the orders are handed down.

The old style mine manager, who was a respected member of the community and took pride in providing his staff and employees with sustainable employment opportunities, is now most often a foreigner who lives there for 18 months.

He does not want to know anyone, spends more time at head office, focuses on his own bonus and getting into the next department or senior management.

Obviously rehabilitation is not in those bonus arrangements in the Hunter Valley. Very hard to find one that has actually built anything or made a difference to an asset. But they are out there!

AL: Who’s your tip for this year’s NRL grand final winner? OK, if you’re going to say the Newcastle Knights, who will they be playing?

NT: Would love to say Newcastle but we don’t seem to be able to put 80 minutes together at the moment. Our injuries are a concern.

St George are a well drilled outfit and just wear you down, they give you nothingand have some great senior players and promising young players to give them depth. They can take a couple of injuries and still be there.

AL: Do you like to have a bet on the track or would you prefer the local TAB?

NT: I am a Pick 6 and quaddie fan at the TAB.

AL: Will any of your horses be racing in this year’s Melbourne Cup?

NT: Fingers crossed. I don’t have any qualified at this stage so will have to win one of the lead ups. Galizani would be my best chance at this stage.