WHEN the coal industry was in its absolute doldrums a few years ago, there were plenty of pundits willing to state that the downturn was different: that this time it was structural rather than cyclical.
Unfortunately for those who make their living by predicting the future, such declarations are notoriously difficult to get right.
To start with, coal prices might have plummeted at the time, but demand for the Hunter’s thermal coal, mostly destined for Asian power stations, continued to rise, if only slowly.
With prices heading north again, as they are now, the economics of the industry are increasingly positive, and the same mines that were derided as “stranded assets” by those urging Rio Tinto and BHP to get out of the industry are now going gangbusters for their new owners. Of course this does not solve the basic dilemma of the climate change debate, which pits the warnings of climate scientists on one side, against a commercially driven world on the other.
Until this battle of opposing forces – or the planet itself – reaches some visible tipping point, we would appear destined to go on fighting the same old fights, with each side wielding the same familiar arguments.
And so it was this week when the Planning Assessment Commission announced its approval of the Wallarah 2 mine on the Central Coast, a project that is now controlled by the South Korean government after various ownership changes in its 20-odd year push for approval.
Initially buoyed by the support of former premier Barry O’Farrell, residents who have fought a long campaign against Wallarah 2 are determined to continue the battle. It remains to be seen whether they have legal grounds to challenge the commission, which found that the environmental impacts – especially those threatening the region’s drinking water supply – “can be managed”.
All coal mines – indeed, all industries – carry their risks, but underground mines are a far less obvious affront to the environment than their open-cut counterparts. The commission is convinced that Wallarah 2 will not have the negative water impacts that some of its counterparts – notably the Illawarra’s Dendrobium mine – have experienced, but the opposing residents remain unconvinced.
Coal no longer enjoys the support it once did, but the energy in that “little black rock” is as valuable as ever. Even with the rise of renewables, coal remains big business.