Public ownership of coal industry needed to move to 100% renewable energy and retain jobs
Graham Brown is a retired coalminer and a climate change activist. He’s also a member of the Upper Hunter branch of the NSW Greens party. The Hunter Valley, near the city of Newcastle, is a major source of Australia's coal exports. Brown is helping build a union and community alliance to create a “just transition” to a carbon-neutral economy. Such a transition would ensure workers in the coal industry move into alternative employment. Socialist Alliance's Zane Alcorn spoke to Brown.
How important is public ownership of electricity generation in a transition to a carbon-neutral economy?
It is definitely of the first importance. A private company is out to make a profit. When that profit starts to drop, it’ll move away. There’s no commitment to the community.
Public ownership is the reverse of that. It will enable the transition to carry through from start to finish. But it’s not going to finish, it’s going to be ongoing. Retrofitting power stations is a first step, but down the track, the best thing about renewable energy is that it is decentralised, and it will be owned by the public. Each community will have its own power generators.
There is a movie called Five Factories, about Venezuela. In one of the factories, the government provided a loan to set up the factory. The idea was the loan would then be paid off so the workers owned the factory. Can you see a similar model working for funding renewable energy in Australia — a “green stimulus package”?
Yes, a transition from government owned to community owned is the way to go. It provides a ready pool of money to kick it off, because a lot of small towns don’t have the money to spend on a big turbine, or a solar thermal setup, or photovoltaics.
Then as the payback progresses, the system provides energy-efficient appliances through the excess capital that’s being generated by paying it back.So [at a community level] we not only start to generate electricity, we also start to make better use of it.
So all those efficient products could also be part of a transition plan?
For sure. All of the energy-efficient stuff is part of the transition phase. There’s no reason it can’t be done as part of a recondition process. If we’re serious about cutting our carbon footprint, recycling is a big part of that. We shouldn’t be scrapping perfectly good fridges and televisions if they can be retrofitted. Lighting is a different matter, but even there, the silicon [from LED lights] can be recycled.
Do you think workers in coal-fired power and associated mineworkers would support a transition plan? What are the main concerns that workers in these industries would want addressed?
Mainly it’s on the coal side of it. The power stations already have an example of a prototype retrofit at Liddell [a power station in the Hunter Valley]. They know the benefits of it. They know that they’re not going to lose their jobs.
The big one of course is the coal industry. They say to me “you give me a job [in renewables], with the same amount of money, and I’ll take it tomorrow”. Well, that’s probably not going to happen. One of the reasons is that they work a lot longer hours than the power station workers do. Their [good] money comes from longer hours, not higher pay.
Where a power station worker does a 35-hour week, a typical mine worker works 52.5 hours a week. Fifty per cent of his pay is topped up with a shift allowance.
That will have to be addressed, and it’s a culture change that will cause that, not necessarily something the transition can do.
When I started in the industry, everyone had a 35-hour week, and was quite happy with it. Now we’ve been forced into a 12-hour shift, and people have forgotten what it was like to have a life. It won’t take long for them to pick that back up.
So there are other miners who know the environmental impacts of the industry and are interested in a just transition?
The people I speak to are by no means “green thinkers”, but they know there is a problem, and they wonder how they fit into it. However, as the transition progresses they would move from mine to mine as the old mines close and old miners retire.
Also the amount of remediation work on the mine sites will go on for many years after the last mine stops working. Wage rates may fluctuate in this time and will need to be kept at least the average for similar construction awards. And miners may well retire in this phase of the transition.
Newcastle exports about A$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 Valley 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 in Victoria 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 [party] and other community activists have been involved in a campaign to protect farmland around Caroona and Liverpool plains from coalmines. 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 ETU secretary 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.
[This article first appeared in two parts in the Green Left Weekly issues #802 and 803, July 11 and 19, 2009.]