Last week represented the end of an era. The closure of Port Augusta’s coal fired power stations and mine in SA provides NSW Hunter Valley communities with an important lesson. Like the Hunter, the Port Augusta community has a proud history of supplying South Australia with coal power over the last 50 years.
But in these rapidly changing times, coal companies can close power stations and mines at very short notice, and they can’t be relied upon to give workers and communities a fair and just transition. All too often – when power stations close their doors for the last time, the community is left with very little to show for decades of hard work. In the case of the Port Augusta mine, there is no transition plan in place, and only $1 million in support for affected families provided by the state government.
With less than a year’s notice, and constantly changing closure dates, the Port Augusta workers and their families had little chance to plan for the future. As a community, we need to start planning for the energy transition Australia is currently experiencing right now, and we need the government on board to help.
We know that the size and scale of the mines is not necessarily a guarantee of the chances of the transitions being fairly managed. Northern and Playford power stations historically provided 35% of South Australia’s power. These power stations, along with the nearby Leigh Creek mine and the rail supplying it, have provided employment for nearly 500 people. Yet, in what is becoming a painfully familiar story, many workers first found out about the closures via the media. Before that, many in the community believed the power stations would keep operating for many years. This lack of certainty often leads to stress for workers and their families.
The Hunter has already started to experience this, as major mining companies respond to the falling coal price and local communities respond to changes in the energy market.
Anglo American announced late last year that it was undertaking a global restructuring, axing 85,000 jobs worldwide. They subsequently cut jobs at Drayton. BHP laid off 290 workers at Mt Arthur, and Glencore mothballed Bulga with 400 jobs lost. Peabody’s international financial woes may lead to trouble in Australia, threatening the 500 jobs at its Wambo mine. Port Augusta shows job losses at short notice can happen at power stations as well. The Hunter needs to plan for such transitions today.
But on the positive side, Port Augusta offers an example of the community creating proposals for new industries well ahead of the government. The Repower Port Augusta alliance of community groups, unions, Port Augusta Council and local business groups have a proposal to build solar thermal plants and wind turbines, producing baseload power for South Australia and employing hundreds of people. They have been campaigning for years to get government support to make it happen. Unfortunately the state and federal governments have only now started seriously thinking about supporting this proposal – too late to smooth the transition for Port Augusta workers losing their jobs.
There are many opportunities for new jobs in new industries in the Hunter. It’s essential that communities keep coming together to investigate economic development ideas now, and governments come to the table early to plan the transition.