Nationalise coal— to fund a just transition away from it

Issue 

This is the second part of an interview about breaking Australia's addiction to coal between Green Left Weekly's Zane Alcorn and retired Hunter Valley coal miner and climate activist Graham Brown. The first article can be read here.

They discuss how a "just transition" away from coal could be made – a transition that benefits the workers and communities now dependent on coalmining and coal-fired energy plants.

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Newcastle exports about $10 billion worth of coal a year. How much of that do you think is going to wages? We don't really have to replace that full $10 billion of exports to provide equivalent wages to workers do we?

Well for a start I would dispute that $10 billion is a real figure. [The coal industry] gets that amount of money by multiplying the tonnage through the port by the average dollar price per tonne. The correct way to do it is to calculate whether a company is foreign owned or not. Some Chinese companies are fully [foreign] owned – and all they are doing is paying the production price of coal, which is currently $12-20 a tonne.

So it's not really worth $10 billion. The money that needs to be coming into the transition away from coal should come from a nationalised coal industry.

If we're serious about this transition, we can't afford to have coal companies skipping the country. We should be nationalising it, or at the very least upping the royalties to 80%, and that money would pay for the transition.

Because, make no mistake about it, these coal companies will skip the country once it starts to wear out.

Can coal be phased out and be used to fund a transition in the meantime? Some climate activists I have spoken to over the years say if you nationalise coal, then the government will just want to keep that revenue source and so coal will never be phased out.

Yes, it can be phased out and nationalised as well. This would make it a lot easier to get the money required.

The government would have pressure from the public not to continue with it. Because part of the process of nationalising it would be the actual deduction of [the cost of] the just transition.

What role do trade unions have to play in creating a just transition?

First and foremost [they need to be] the leaders of it.

We can't leave this transition up to coal companies – we need to run it ourselves.
Trade unions will need to supervise it. They'll be the driving force behind it.

They will show that it can be done. The trade unions' role is to show by example: to point out to the state government, the federal government, or to local councils, that this is how it's to be done and we expect you to play your part.

Do you think workers would have to leave the mining and energy union and join another union as part of a transition plan? Or will the union itself, along with its workers, become a changed entity?

Well by default we won't need a mining union to cover the coal mining industry [forever] – though there would still need to be some regulation of it [as coal mining is phased out].

I would suggest the union would just change its emphasis from "mining" to "energy" and "construction".

Have you seen any encouraging first steps towards a just transition plan in the Hunter Valley or elsewhere? I understand you recently visited the LaTrobe Valley in Victoria and discussed this.

Well, they've already got their rudimentary plan up and running, they've had 10 years.

Here in the Hunter we've got a report, produced by Newcastle University's Centre of Full Employment and Equity, and it's a blueprint for a transition. The best thing is how it shows there will be more jobs in a green economy.

And that's not surprising because the experience overseas almost every time shows that to be the case. So there's not much green energy [in Australia] yet there certainly will be, and we know there will be.

In the Latrobe Valley [union members] are setting up two projects. One is a kit for asbestos removal. Its been developed by the union workers and its been tested in the asbestos removal industry and they've said it's right.

The other thing they've done is build a prototype of a solar hot water heater for homes [as a possible new green industry for the region]. Its been done in conjunction with a private company because the union has limited finances to do it alone.

The other thing is a few years back they constructed some wind turbines for a Danish company. The Danes came out and had a look at them and said "yes, they're fine, they're the best we've seen". They are good examples of what's happening, what has happened, and are a pointer to the future.

I know that the Upper Hunter Greens and other community activists have been involved in a campaign to protect farmland around Caroona and Liverpool plains from coal mines. You have worked with people who are in the farmers' federation. Are any of these farmers looking at the question of a just transition?

Yes they are – in particular those farmers in the Caroona area, we've worked with them. Farmers in the Hunter Valley are in a different type of agriculture. There are different types. But the thing in common with all of them is that they are aware of modern technology and they see new modern technology as being less carbon-intensive.

They also see that we are running out of certain types of fertiliser and stuff that they use. They want to know: after peak oil where we are going to get that from, those inputs that they need.

And they are well aware that we need research into it, and they're prepared to back that research into the stuff we're talking about. It may not necessarily be wind turbines, it may not be hot water services. But its farmland stuff, it's new technology and can be part of the transition.

If [Federal National Party senator] Barnaby Joyce is to be believed, every farmer is a climate sceptic. But it would seem you have spoken to farmers who are quite conscious of climate change.

Yes, and they may not be as sceptical as Barnaby Joyce thinks they are. [This is] because they've looked around and have seen what's happening.

There's nothing like looking around at other countries to see that there is a problem.
A lot of those [farmers] are wealthy, there's no doubt about that. Some have lived overseas, and they know there's a problem there.

It's not hard to convince them. There's a connection between Australia and Scandinavia because of the wheat ships. They can tell you what it's like in Sweden now, where there's little snow in Stockholm anymore, all it does is rain and freeze, and they get this sludge on the footpath. And they can't move on the Baltic like they did before because the ice is so thin.

There are also a lot of people who know that in Scandinavia they use cogeneration [a process where excess heat generated from power plants is captured for use] to heat their houses. And last summer it reached 38°C and there's is no mechanism to turn the heating off – they've never had to turn it off before. So those farmers know exactly what's going on there – they can tell you all about it.

I understand you have spoken to a representative of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) who has been on a delegation to Europe to look at the renewables industry?

Yes, I spoke to the ETU environment officer [Imogen Schoots] and she was telling us that a high level delegation went, led by Dean Mighell, and they saw first-hand a transition away from coal towards renewable energy.

They can see it's slightly different to what's happening here, and that's to be expected. But all in all they think [the transition] is viable and they're prepared to start planning for a transition as well.

Do you think it could be useful for some of the more progressive Australian unions like the metalworkers and the ETU to sponsor a speaking tour of their European counterparts who work in the renewable energy sector?

For sure, I think that's definitely a worthwhile project because they would be able to tell us what they told the ETU delegates. It would definitely be of benefit.

You yourself are going on a speaking tour soon for the socialist youth organisation, Resistance?

Yes, I'm going through the southern states and into Perth to talk about a transition, and hopefully we can get some results out of that as well.

Thank you very much for speaking with Green Left Weekly.

Thank you. And I must say that wherever I go, I try to tell people that Green Left Weekly is the pre-eminent source of information about this stuff.