IT IS a story that should be better known – how the seizure by “pirates” of a fledgling convict settlement’s largest boat in 1797 led to the discovery of coal in Newcastle.
Lieutenant John Shortland’s search for the Cumberland, after what was described as a “daring piratical transaction” while the boat sailed from Port Jackson to the Hawkesbury River, failed to find the “pirates”.
But what Shortland discovered on the chase was much more significant than the return of the Cumberland. He turned into a river that he named the Hunter and found “a very considerable quantity of coal of a very good sort, and lying so near the water side as to be conveniently shipped”.
More than 200 years later Newcastle remains the world’s biggest coal export port, and the Hunter region one of the world’s significant thermal and coking coal suppliers. Which is why what happens in Newcastle and the Hunter, as the world comes to terms with the reality of climate change, matters.
It’s why every step of the climate change “war” in Australia has meant battles and skirmishes up and down the region, and why the Hunter and Newcastle will remain central to how this country transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
AGL’s announcement on Wednesday of a $200 million upgrade to the coal-fired Bayswater power station, as part of its larger plan to move from coal and close Bayswater’s older sibling, Liddell, is important.
One of the biggest energy companies in this country is showing that Australia needs to plan its transition from coal in an orderly fashion, to prevent price shockwaves and protect the Hunter economy and jobs. Rather than a commitment to coal, the upgrade is a sign of a company leading on an issue where political leadership has been sadly lacking.
On Wednesday the coal city experienced another glimpse of the future, when Port Waratah Coal Services revealed it was “very surprised and concerned” that a draft NSW Government plan for Newcastle included investigating a port without Carrington coal terminal.
The terminal is small and the oldest of the terminals, but the symbolic impact of those huge coal stacks disappearing from the Carrington site cannot be understated.
Coal will continue to dominate Newcastle and the Hunter for years to come, but the region has to be prepared for some serious conversations ahead.