STEADILY and surely, the screw is tightening on the coal industry – an industry that has been at the heart of this region’s psyche and prosperity for virtually all of the time since white settlement.
Almost every day of the week, another report surfaces with findings and commentary designed to promote the view that coal, as a fossil fuel for generating electricity, is about to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Much of this material is partisan. But there is no doubt that thanks to climate change – and the potential for renewable energy to meet more of the world’s electricity needs – the coal industry, here and abroad, is fighting for its very legitimacy.
King Coal no longer automatically gets what King Coal wants, as the comprehensive rejection of Drayton South as an open-cut mine has made clear. At first glance, Friday’s announcement that the NSW government intends legislatively banning open-cut mining at the Drayton South site would seem like another decisive blow for the anti-coal lobby, permanently removing the cheapest and easiest way of removing the coal from the ground.
But when Malabar Coal – backed by New York billionaire Hans Mende – announced it was buying Drayton South earlier this year from mining giant Anglo American, it was well aware that an open-cut mine was off the table.
Subsequently, Malabar has only ever been considering an underground mine for the lease in question, meaning the government’s intention to amend the relevant State Environmental Planning Policy does nothing to hamper the company’s intentions for the site. Indeed, Malabar says it asked the government to make its exploration license underground only.
Environmental group Lock the Gate and the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association want all mining banned from the area. They will be vocal opponents if Malabar proceeds with its plans to develop the 30-year underground mine that it’s dubbed Project Maxwell. Malabar also holds the adjacent Spur Hill lease, and both proposals would use the old Drayton pit-top infrastructure to move the coal.
Even if Malabar says it’s happy with the restrictions, the fact that the government feels obliged to back them by legislation shows how far the goal-posts have shifted. And how the industry mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” is not as persuasive as it once was.