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Support for coal-producing communities, including Hunter, to be overhauled

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The NSW Minerals Council has thrown its backing behind the NSW Government’s proposed model for the Future Jobs and Investment Authorities.

Labor launched the framework at Muswellbrook on Tuesday 28 May – with Minister for Natural Resources Courtney Houssos on hand – which will support workers and communities in the Hunter, Illawarra, Central West and North West as mines and coal-fired power stations close in the coming decades.

Today, coal plays a crucial role across NSW, with more than 125,000 workers in the state either directly or indirectly employed by both sectors.

The Hunter is the largest regional economy in Australia, boasting many comparative economic advantages underpinned by a skilled and diverse workforce, key infrastructure and connections to major markets via the Port of Newcastle, Newcastle Airport, Pacific Highway and key rail routes, as well as strong supply chains in the energy sector.

As of now, there are 22 active mines in the region, along with three coal-fired power stations.

Approximately 90% of the coal is exported, providing a 17.1% regional economic output.

But, all that’s due to change by 2040, according to pundits.

Four of NSW’s coal-fired power stations and 32 of the state’s mines are set to close, including several in the Hunter.

Under the proposed model, the Future Jobs and Investment Authorities will include:

  • The Future Jobs and Investment Advocate, a statutory role established in legislation and providing advice to the Minister for Natural Resources to lead strategic work with each regional authority and coordinate the authorities’ work across government;
  • The Future Jobs and Investment Board, comprised of the chairs of each regional authorities, unions, industry associations and relevant government agencies. The board will be chaired by the Advocate;
  • Office of the Future Jobs and Investment Authorities, a central, dedicated delivery unit within the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, staffed to support the work of local authorities, the Advocate and the Board;
  • Regional Future Jobs and Investment Authorities in each of the Hunter, Illawarra, Central West and Far West with representation from local government, community groups, unions and the mining industry to ensure locally-led input and bespoke advice can drive government decision making;
  • The Future Jobs and Investment Authorities will replace the Royalties for Rejuvenation and Expert Panels scheme set up by the previous Liberal-National Government. The authorities will play a central role inside the government to advocate for coal-producing communities, unlike the Expert Panels which are isolated from the rest of the government and unempowered to advocate or champion the issue across government.

Proposals and projects suggested by the authorities will be tailored for each region so they can:

  • Drive investment opportunities which are aligned to competitive advantages for each region. In the Hunter this could mean promoting renewable energy manufacturing, and in the Illawarra industries like clean energy and defence;
  • Facilitate economically beneficial post-mining land uses. The authorities can help facilitate new and innovative uses for coal mines after they close. Already this year, the government has announced a former Hunter coal mine will be transformed into a motor park resort and tourism centre, while others are exploring becoming pumped hydro and clean energy facilities;
  • Support opportunities for local manufacturing. Often located on large tracts of land with existing infrastructure, and with skilled labour already deployed, the state’s manufacturing can be boosted by leveraging the history of coal mines; and
  • Ensure a ready pipeline of skills to support the activation of new industries. Providing workers with access to TAFE courses and other training to obtain the skills required for future job opportunities.
NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee. Photo: Rod Thompson

NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee admitted the proposal was a positive sign that long-term planning for the future was being taken seriously.

“The NSW mining industry has been involved in such preparation for many years, including through the Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue established in 2012, and with pumped hydro and other post-mining projects now under development at several former mine sites,” he said.

“The medium-term outlook for NSW coal is strong.

“Nearly 90% of all coal produced in NSW is exported to more than 20 countries overseas… and demand for this high-quality coal is likely to remain high for many years. 

“Reflecting on this strong export demand, there are nearly 40 mines currently operating across NSW, including 17 in the Hunter, with most involved in export coal markets.

“Fifteen Upper Hunter mines either have approvals in place or are seeking approvals to continue mining to 2035 or beyond, with several seeking extensions to operate beyond 2040. 

“Beyond the Upper Hunter, another 15 NSW coal mines either have approvals in place or are seeking approvals to continue mining into the 2030s, with six either approved or seeking approval to operate until 2040, and several seeking extensions to operate well beyond 2040.”

Mr Galilee said the strong outlook provided time to plan for the future while the economic benefits and jobs continued.

“The small number of NSW mining operations most likely to be affected by market changes in the short-to-medium term are those dependent on supplying coal to power stations here in NSW,” he explained.

“With most remaining NSW power stations forecast to close over the next decade, the impacts on these workers and their communities should be prioritised.

“This includes the Lithgow region, as well as Lake Macquarie, where up to 1,000 mining jobs are currently at risk due to changes to coal supply arrangements at the Eraring Power Station.

“While the NSW Government’s commitment to plan for the future is welcome, merely replacing one bureaucratic structure with another, larger one won’t deliver outcomes.

“Funding must also be allocated to replace the scrapped Resources for Regions program.

“That initiative delivered significant funding for NSW mining communities but was scrapped by the NSW Government in last year’s NSW State Budget.

“This program must be restored in the upcoming budget, when the NSW Government will also receive a multi-billion-dollar boost to its forward revenues due to coal royalty increases announced last year.”

Having consulted widely and gained advice from hundreds of community members including unions, industry groups, mining companies and local and state government representatives, this is the first time a model has been proposed for the Future Jobs and Investment Authorities.

The issues paper also includes a detailed analysis of planned mine closures, employment rates, and economic data for each of the four regions.

“Coal has long been a source of economic prosperity for the Hunter,” Minister for the Hunter Yasmin Catley said.

“But, as the world evolves, we must ensure our region can continue to employ workers, provide good jobs and ensure people have a good, prosperous future. 

“The Hunter is Australia’s largest regional economy and Tuesday’s announcement will help support our community go from strength-to-strength. 

“A Hunter authority will ensure that local voices are heard and give us direct input to help drive investment, develop new industries, re-skill workers and enhance our already great manufacturing capability. 

“It’ll provide a clear roadmap to building a prosperous future for the Hunter.”

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