BHP Billiton will test driverless haulage trucks at Muswellbrook’s Mt Arthur coalmine in a trial that could spell the end of thousands of jobs from the coal industry.
The trial at the state’s largest open-cut coalmine is likely to start within the next 12 months and is the first initiated by a mining company at a coalmine in the wake of driverless trucks in Western Australia’s iron ore mines, pictured.
Japanese construction machinery manufacturer Hitachi is running a trial of driverless trucks at Queensland’s Meandu coalmine as part of what Hitachi calls the ‘‘strengthening push for automation’’ within the industry.
BHP’s announcement comes only weeks after the NSW Planning Assessment Commission approved an extension of Mt Arthur’s operations from 2022 until 2026, in part because it would ‘‘facilitate the continued employment of up to 2600 employees’’.
The driverless truck trial was not raised during the PAC investigation process or during a public hearing.
It also comes after Mt Arthur Coal announced last week that another 150 jobs at the mine would go, making a total job loss of 500 in 12 months as the company ‘‘resets’’ its ‘‘cost base’’, despite a $174 million annual profit.
‘‘This is a kick in the guts to the Hunter community,’’ said Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union spokesman Peter Jordan.
NSW Greens mining spokesman Jeremy Buckingham said BHP’s Mt Arthur proposal revealed the ‘‘absolute hypocrisy of these multinational coal companies’’.
‘‘They use the spectre of job losses to demand mining approvals, while at the same time act to implement measures that cut employment,’’ Mr Buckingham said.
In a notice to Mt Arthur employees in October, BHP’s NSW energy coal asset president Peter Sharpe said the ‘‘autonomous haulage options’’ trial would run in Mt Arthur’s Saddlers pit, with a final decision on driverless trucks at the mine before June 2016.
While BHP said on Monday that a final decision on driverless trucks at Mt Arthur had not been made, BHP coal president Dean Dalla Valle said earlier this year there was ‘‘no doubt’’ driverless trucks would operate in trials at coalmine sites by late 2015.
Mt Arthur runs four crews of drivers who operate about 80 trucks per shift.