OPINION: Coal power workers need support

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The cooling towers of Liddell Power Station are an iconic sight in the Hunter Valley. For half a century, Liddell has powered NSW and provided skilled, long-term jobs for our region. It will be a sad and significant day for our union, our community and our state when Liddell stops operating this month.

The Mining and Energy Union has been proud to represent workers at Liddell for those 50 years and we pay tribute to our current and retired members who have spent all or part of their working lives at Liddell.

In just two years’ time, Eraring Power Station on the shores of Lake Macquarie is also due to close. In February last year, workers were blindsided when Eraring’s closure date was brought forward from 2032 to 2025.

Across the Hunter Valley, our export coal industry is booming. Even though prices have declined from record highs of six to twelve months ago, prices are still strong and mine operators are doing everything they can to recruit and retain enough workers to dig the coal out and get it to port as quickly as they can.

The introduction of the revised Safeguard Mechanism will require our biggest coal mines to reduce their emissions by 5% per year and there’s no doubt it will be challenging.

The Safeguard Mechanism doesn’t stop new coal and gas projects being approved, but it does mean they will have to invest in emissions-abatement technologies or offset their emission through credits. We will continue to speak with mining companies about how they will meet these challenges to extend the life of export-focused coal mines and the jobs they sustain.  

Meanwhile, our domestic coal power industry is undergoing rapid change as more renewables enter the grid, coal-fired power stations age and operators make decisions about their future viability.

Around the country, we have had a succession of announcements of power station closures being brought forward. Our members in the energy industry are deeply concerned about their prospects for secure, well-paid jobs into the future; the economic and social decline of communities and the potential for safety standards to decline as power stations get closer to the end of their operating lives.

The MEU is backing the call for a federal Energy Transition Authority to fund and co-ordinate support for workers, families and communities affected by the closure of coal power stations and associated coal mines.

We want an Authority where workers, government and industry all have a seat at the table; with a long-term, ambitious agenda to drive regional economic diversification and provide support to affected workers including redeployment schemes, retraining and early retirement where appropriate.

In communities like Lithgow and Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, we have seen the social and economic decline that occurs when good coal mining and power station jobs disappear and no support is provided. We have the time and resources to avoid this fate for all communities that depend on coal power for jobs.

In March, some of our power station delegates went to Canberra to meet politicians and share their personal experiences about the pressures they face and the support they, their families and communities need.

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Our member Scott King from Eraring told an MP briefing in Parliament House about the shock he and his workmates felt when the closure date was suddenly brought forward seven years, pulling the rug out from under their future plans. He said that after decades of powering the nation, coal power workers feared they would become stranded assets.

As we mark the significant occasion of Liddell’s closure, let’s take action now to support all our coal power workers and communities. There’s no time to waste in establishing a federal Energy Transition Authority.

Robin Williams

District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy

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