Environmental groups constantly generate feelings of job insecurity by questioning the viability of our coalmining industry. They are wrong to do so.
They argue that global demand for coal is about to collapse because our export customers are racing to renewable forms of energy generation. They also claim the technology needed to make steel without metallurgical coal is just around the corner. Neither is true.
A similar campaign is being waged against another fossil fuel, natural gas. Indeed, some are calling for the new gas field at Narrabri to be knocked on the head. Madness.
The truth is, demand for coal in the Indo-Pacific - Australia’s coal export market - will slowly rise over the coming years. Demand for our gas, both domestically and on export markets, is growing too. If we don’t get more gas out of the ground energy prices will rise, manufacturing jobs will be lost, and export opportunities will be missed.
The way forward for mining regions such as the Hunter Valley is to keep meeting the needs of our export customers, and to find better and more efficient ways of using our fossil fuels here in Australia. That’s where the embrace of technology is important.
Given the behavior of investors we can expect that in twenty years’ time, around 50 percent of the electricity we consume will come from renewable sources producing intermittent power. But the energy grid will need ‘firming’ power as the older coal power stations are retired. That’s why we need to give strong support to technologies like carbon capture and storage which could allow the lives of some coal generators to be extended and will allow gas to play a larger role without increasing carbon emissions.
A lower-emissions economy is our future, and to get there I have long advocated that we can walk and chew gum too.
This is possible, as evidenced by the Minerals Council of Australia’s recent Climate Action Plan. It shows how Australian mining will stay vibrant and a strong employer, while still contributing to climate action.
Central to the MCA plan is a commitment to technology. It is fitting that many of the new technologies that drive a low-emissions, modern economy, are supplied by mining. The ingredients for Lithium-ion batteries, for instance, are all produced right here in Australian mines, as are the components for wind turbines, PV solar panels and all the electrical infrastructure in the grid.
The zero-emissions fuel of the future – hydrogen – also comes from mining. In Queensland and Victoria, engineers are transforming coal byproducts into hydrogen, which will be a zero-emissions fuel of the future.
Technology must be our focus. In Victoria, Queensland and WA, there are projects to sequester carbon dioxide into the ground, from LNG plants and coal-fired power stations. These Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects can also be utilised to make hydrogen, and fertiliser.
In the Hunter we have an expanding coal export industry, but we’ve also had a glimpse of the future. AGL’s transition from the soon-to-be retired Liddell power station, to gas, pumped hydro and battery storage is a welcome one. Also welcome is the prospect of a gas pipeline connecting Narrabri to Port of Newcastle, weaving through the Upper Hunter along the way. There are also plans to create a biogas industry in the Hunter from organic waste products.
None of this requires the end of coal. Indeed, it will require strong mining and gas industries. That’s exactly what we will continue to have here in the Hunter Valley.