Coal for export

map-australiaCoal is a significant part of Australia’s energy profile. Coal generates approximately 75% of Australia’s electricity. The nation has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world, at 24 kilograms in 2012 (for per capita and other figures see OECD table). New demand for Australian coal exports from China and India have driven the boom, with coal production rising from 304mt to 459mt between 2005 and 2013, with approximately 75% exported; a further increase expected, to 689mt by 2025. Between 2001 and 2011 the value of coal exports rose almost 300%.

In recent times, the coal boom has shown signs of a slowdown. Demand from China has likely peaked, and the parallel rush for gas is set to displace a portion of coal production and consumption. Meanwhile, renewable energy growth combined with a downturn in electricity demand means no new coal or gas power capacity will be required to maintain our supply-adequacy over the next 10 years.

We seek to understand the intersecting global and national dynamics of coal. Importantly, these are not strictly economic or technical issues. They also raise socio-political questions.

We are investigating the contestation of coal in terms of the connections between local coal-affected communities, formal decision-making, and a transnational coal industry driven by global export and energy markets.

Policy, Politics and Culture

Current policy frameworks support continued coal reliance. Under the current, and the former government’s energy and climate policies, it is expected that coal will continue to generate more than a third of Australia’s electricity. The Australian target for reducing emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 does not challenge domestic or export coal markets, and is below the international minimum requirement of 25% for industrialised countries.

However, there have been a number of other policy developments that may change the scale and terms of further coal expansion. For instance, reforms to include a ‘water trigger’ under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, a new strategic land use policy, and review of NSW coal allocations are underway. These policy debates are being shaped by an ongoing national contest over fossil fuels.

Coal has become increasingly politicized. In the state of NSW, expansions of the Newcastle coal export port have attracted dissent from community groups along the Hunter Valley coal chain since the mid-2000s, there have been court cases over mining throughout the Hunter Valley, and Maules Creek coal mine has been a flashpoint of political contestation since 2011.

On a national level, the fossil fuel industry has been at the centre of major political contests in the last decade. In 2006, the role of the fossil fuel lobby in shaping energy and climate policy was debated; in 2010 mining executives mounted an advertising campaign against a Federal proposal to tax mining ‘super-profits’; in 2012 political controversy erupted in NSW with investigation into allegations of corruption in the allocation of coal concessions.

Finally, there is now a hotly contested debate about coal’s ‘social license to operate’. A growing movement for fossil fuel divestment has mobilized in Australia, with transnational linkages. Industry and government officials have responded publicly insisting on the importance of coal for social development.

Importantly, these contests are about more than capital P Politics. They are constituted in fields of cultural identity, citizenship, and social movement politics including within localities engaged with coal industries, within corporate cultures, and within national and global imaginaries. With this in mind, we are combining cultural analysis of the national debate over coal in Australia, with an ethnographic study of coal expansion in a key site of expansion.


Gunnedah Basin NSW

The Gunnedah basin in NSW, which has huge coal reserves under rich farming land, and several large mine proposals, is the Australian site for ethnographic research. In the mainly rural localities in North- and Mid-West New South Wales, agricultural production is beginning to compete with new open-cut coal mines and coal seam gas drilling operations. For instance, new greenfield coal mines are proposed for the Liverpool Plains, North-West region, and Bylong Valley. And there are significant expansions of existing coal mines slated for the Mid-West.

The arrival of coal developments in these new frontiers of expansion can bring employment and growth as well as community division, uneven development, displacement, and environmental damage. In the midst of change and debate about coal developments, diverse views within the community become animated. The project seeks to explore these political and cultural dynamics through sustained ethnographic study.

Through two years of participant observation, the project investigators will document the lived experience where coal has come to town. Particular focus has been placed on the townships of Quirindi (Liverpool Plains) and Gulgong (Mid-West region).