MORE than 2.78 billion tonnes of coal have been gouged out of the Hunter Valley since the year 2000, enough to fill Lake Macquarie more than three times over.
Piled at 73 metres high - tall enough to cover Christ Church Cathedral plus the hill it's sitting on - it would create a 27 square kilometre blanket over the heart of Newcastle, from Fort Scratchley to Mayfield, and south to Merewether's Ocean baths.
And there is more to come.
There are 21 more coal mining projects in the pipeline for the Hunter region alone, at various stages of the approval process. If just the top ten proposed extensions, expansions or modifications were to go ahead, it would involve a capital investment of more than $3 billion, and subject tens of thousands more hectares of the valley to mining.
As part of the ongoing series, Power and the Passion, the Newcastle Herald is examining the impacts of an extraordinary global shift in energy supply. This week we begin our focus on coal - what it's brought to the Hunter and what it will eventually leave behind - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If the Hunter's mines and coal-fired power stations closed tomorrow, it would devastate the region, wiping out 15,000 direct jobs, plus contractors and suppliers, and strip more than $1.6 billion a year in wages from workers' pockets, erasing mining and related industries' 20 per cent share of the region's economy.
Independent public policy think tank Per Capita economist and senior fellow Shirley Jackson said a sudden end to mining would wipe out whole Upper Hunter towns.
If major employers leave, especially regional areas, whole towns can be devastated. Real estate prices can collapse, populations age and shrink and once-busy shops shut down. Without a just transition, planned for and supported, it could bring the Upper Hunter to its knees, Mr Jackson said
"It could be the end of some of those towns," Mr Jackson said. "Towns that generations of families have been living in."
A Western Sydney University report estimates that coal mining contributes 58 per cent of the economic output of Muswellbrook and Singleton, representing between 31 and 41 per cent of all jobs.
Using a multiplier effect of 3.5, a figure up until recently relied on by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to calculate the broader impact of mining on employment, that's more than 40,000 jobs which rely on the Hunter's 29 operating coal mines.
Analysis by Treasury shows mining is the state's most productive industry - extracting $225 in gross value-added output per hour worked. And for many years, the NSW budget bottom line has been buoyed by about $2 billion in coal royalties revenue annually, the bulk of it flowing through the Port of Newcastle.
Hunter Research Foundation academic director Professor Roberta Ryan said the Hunter was arguably Australia's most important regional economy. She says the region's heavy reliance on coal is a major challenge for the region, especially for the Upper Hunter.
"If the mine closes, so does the local cafe, so does the uniform manufacturer, it affects them all, the trucks that are supplied to the industry, the tyres, the whole supply chain," Professor Ryan said. "So that's why we often talk about diversifying the economy. No economy anywhere in the world is safe if we are dependent upon one industry, no matter what the industry."
As countries around the world take action to implement the Paris Agreement climate change goals, there are fears that without urgent reforms, in the form of a coordinated transition plan, a tsunami will spread through the largely coal-dependent Hunter Valley.
Singleton Business Chamber president Sue Gilroy said there was deep-felt resignation by many in the Upper Hunter that they are facing a future where coal will no longer be king.
"Most people realise the coal industry has a life expectancy, we just don't know exactly what that is," she said. "We should be taking the opportunity right now, using a strong economy, to diversify and grow our other industries. This doesn't mean a change completely away from coal, it will be there for some time, but we need to leverage off what we have right now to grow other industries."
Ms Gilroy visited Parliament House last week, along with other Hunter representatives, seeking a concrete transition plan for the future. As the shift from powering the world with fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydrogen gains momentum, Ms Gilroy said the Hunter needed a way forward.
"If we really want to go to the crux of the issue, we all depend on coal," she said. "There is an acknowledgement we should be doing something, there is an appetite for looking at this. But there is no plan and we desperately need a plan. How do we develop a road map if we don't have a destination?"
However, international appetite for the region's coal, with 80 per cent of what's mined going overseas, is showing no signs of slowing down just yet. Despite China's exit from the market, having turned away from NSW coal, the state's exports dropped by less than 1 per cent last year, as emerging markets in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand quickly filled the void.
During the past eight years alone, more 3.45 billion tonnes of coal has moved through the Port of Newcastle, with an export value of $150 billion.
The International Energy Agency predicts that, if the demand for coal being exported through the Port of Newcastle and Port Kembla remains on its current trajectory, it will remain static, or continue to grow, until at least 2040. At the same time, our three biggest coal customers - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - all have net-zero carbon emissions targets.
NSW Minerals Council chief Stephen Galilee said coal mining in the Hunter was very likely to continue for decades, as demand for thermal coal across Asia was forecast to remain strong.
"Most of our coal is exported to 19 or more countries around the world," Mr Galilee said. "Many of these are in the Asian region and at different stages of the development of national energy systems. Like us, most of these countries rely on coal-fired power as part of their energy mix, while building the capacity of other energy sources.
"This is why there are currently more than 2,400 coal-fired power stations in operation around the world. It's also why over 1600 of these are in east, south and south-east Asia. Some plants are old, some are new, and in some places more of them are being built, mostly new (high energy low emissions) HELE plants. These power stations need coal.
"If we stop providing our high quality coal, our trading partners will source lower quality coal from elsewhere, leading to increased global emissions."
Asked if enough is being done, and quickly enough, to ensure a just and reliable plan is in place for a supported transition, Mr Galilee said it was "always prudent to look to the future".
"Regions and economies change over time, and we strongly support building and diversifying the Hunter's economy," he said. "Mining continues to be a big part of the Hunter, which is helping the Hunter economy to strengthen and diversify over time.
University of Western Sydney Senior Research Lecturer Neil Perry has a different take. In his report 'Weathering the storm', he says there will be a massive decline in the demand for thermal coal if the world takes action on the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development climate change goals.
The report, commissioned by Lock the Gate, says there will be "enormous risks and impacts" for the region if it does not prepare for the global changes that are underway. "However, if action is taken now to prepare for the changes that are coming and to diversify the Hunter economy, then it is possible to buffer the region and increase employment and wages," the report says.
NSW and Federal Governments have both committed to meeting Paris Agreement goals and Australia is committed to the UN Sustainable Development goals, it says.
"Large cuts in coal production and demand must occur if the world is to meet these targets and this report is predicated on the 55 per cent reduction in global coal demand to 2040 presented in the 2017 World energy Outlook for the Sustainable Development Scenario.
"Crucial to ... a positive and fair transition ... is immediate action from governments to establish a transition process that involves all stakeholders, to invest substantial resources in key industries and to prioritise workforce re-training and skill development.
The report models the effect on the Hunter's economy of a 55 per cent contraction of the coal mining industry by 2040. It shows that a "proactive transition process" could result in the creation of 595 more jobs than would be lost from coal mining, while local wages and salaries could increase by $315 million during the same period
Analysis by NSW's Treasury issued in June last year predicts coal jobs will disappear entirely in NSW within 20 years if international demand shrinks. The other two scenarios predict that NSW coal jobs will decline from the current level of about 22,000 to just over 5000 by 2047, or, in the most optimistic case, about 10,000 in 2047.
Already, the relative size of the workforce and public returns appear to be diminishing. Based on NSW Coal Services data on employment and coal production, the number of people directly employed in the Hunter's coal mining industry - people working "in or around a coal mine or coal preparation plant", employed by either a mine operator or a contractor - has hovered at just below 11,500 since 2019. That is a drop of nine per cent from a peak of 12,703 jobs in 2011. In 2021, there were 11,499 full-time equivalent jobs.
At the same time, total coal production has increased by 10.2 per cent, while productivity - the amount of coal produced per worker, has increased by 21.7 per cent (likely due to increasing levels of automation and increasingly efficient processing).
The latest NSW intergenerational report, issued in June, forecasts that coal mining royalties in NSW are expected to more than halve by 2061. Based on Department of Regional NSW data, Hunter coal royalties have already dropped by more than 20 per cent per tonne, down from a total of $834 million in 2010-11, to $727 million in 2020-21.
Critics argue that regardless of international demand for coal, job numbers and royalties, from a health and climate change perspective we cannot afford to continue to mine coal in the way that we have.
Every step of the coal to energy generation life cycle - mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of waste - impacts on human health, according to Doctors for the Environment Australia.
They cite scientific studies identifying coal as the single biggest driver of climate change, and quote scientist's estimating that more than 80 per cent of the world's known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if warming is to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius.
National chairman of Doctors for the Environment, Dr John van der Kallen, said it was abundantly clear that there was no choice but to move away from non-renewable energy sources.
"It's amazing what humans have been able to achieve and we are where we are because of all of those industries in the past - but we have to look towards the future and the future has to be low carbon," Dr Van der Kallen said.
"So much of this is going to be driven by what the world does, and if they stick to the COP26 (the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) plan to stop buying coal, then it won't matter if we've got lots of plans for new mines, there's not going to be a market and we won't need those mines.
"They will become stranded assets and people will lose money and jobs and probably very quickly, and we have seen it before in the Hunter where the coal price has declined and people lost jobs, so they are not secure jobs, and history has shown that."
Lock the Gate Alliance's Georgina Woods said it is not 'wrong' to say that demand for the Hunter's coal is strong and could easily continue to stay that way. "But the absolutely crucial thing is, if the world is going to meet the Paris Climate Agreement temperature goals ... then coal demand must drop away," Ms Woods said.
"You can't say that you are committed to averting catastrophic climate change and meeting the Paris Agreement climate goals, and that you expect global coal demand to continue strongly. They can't both be true."
Because of that reality, the Hunter region needs really concerted investment and support to rapidly invest in new job opportunities, economic opportunities and social infrastructure - and communities need to have their hands on the reins, she said.
"The people who live here, who actually live with the consequences of those decisions and the denial of climate change ... don't really get that much of a say and that's what needs to change."
Whichever way you look at it, and whoever's figures you rely upon, the coal mining industry is a key economic driver and provides thousands of crucial jobs throughout NSW and in the Hunter.
It goes a long way back. The Hunter Valley is the oldest coal mining community in Australia. Coal was first discovered at the mouth of the Hunter River in 1797, and was first exported in 1801 when 150 tonnes of it left Newcastle for India. By the early twentieth century, the region had become by far the biggest producer of coal Australia-wide.
The legacy of that early mining activity, and what has followed, remains a battlefield for communities who are left to live with the consequences, including the issue of legacy mines management and mine rehabilitation.
According to the Australia Institute, which has called for a moratorium on new coal mines in NSW, filling in the Upper Hunter's final voids would cost between $12 and $25 billion, while the NSW Government holds just $3.3 billion in environmental bonds for all mines in the state.
While leaving huge voids may be in line with existing legal obligations, it does not meet community expectations, the Institute says. In a 2016 poll, 77 per cent of respondents said they expected mine sites to be returned "close to previous natural or farming conditions', meaning pits refilled to near original surface level, groundwater protected and original types of vegetation replanted.
"It appears there is a substantial gap between the standard of rehabilitation required by the NSW Government and the standard that the public expects."
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