Queensland’s coal belt unsure of repercussions as world discusses fossil fuel phase-out in Glasgow climate talks

While the biggest names in world politics shake hands and make calls on the future of global emissions next week, in Queensland’s coal belt life will quietly continue. 

Dinner is going on the table, small businesses are reconciling the books and the first coffees of a night shift are being brewed.

World leaders will meet in Glasgow for the most ambitious climate talks since 2015, with an agenda that includes securing global targets to reach net zero emissions, which would involve investment in renewables and accelerating the “phase-out” of coal.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal (used in steelmaking) and second-largest exporter of thermal coal (used for electricity generation) and prices for both have surged recently amid global energy demand and supply issues.

Using data supplied by its members, the Queensland Resources Council has calculated that the coal industry provides more than 32,000 full-time jobs directly and indirectly supports an estimated 270,000 jobs. 

The future of coal is up for debate at the Glasgow climate talks.(ABC News: Russel Talbot)

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) forecast last month that if China, Japan and South Korea stick to their stated targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, it could mean Australia’s coal exports decline significantly by 2050.

The RBA does predict a lower risk for metallurgical coal producers because of the strong global demand for its use in steelmaking until greener alternatives are more widespread.

The central Queensland town of Moura, a few hours’ drive south-west of Rockhampton, is home to the Dawson Mine — an open-cut metallurgical coal mine that also produces some thermal coal as a by-product. 

Originally this tiny town was a farming community and agriculture still plays a large role — as does gas and a local ammonium nitrate facility — but the mine, now a joint venture between Anglo American and Mitsui Holdings, is one of the state’s longest-running operations, having been established in 1961.

In Moura’s main street stands a sombre memorial for 36 people killed in underground mining disasters in 1975, 1986 and 1994.

Underground operations ceased after the final disaster, but today the mine still employs more than 1,300 people, including a large portion of residents in Moura and the surrounding Banana Shire.

Aerial of Moura in central Queensland
Coal is at the centre of life in the central Queensland town of Moura. (ABC News: Russel Talbot)

Though small, Moura is a vibrant community where the coal mining industry plays a central role.

But the implications of decisions made in Glasgow are still unclear. 

Local hairdresser Jackie Campbell admitted she found it confusing trying to work out how the talks could impact her community.

“It’s very complex,” she said.

Many of her clients are either mine employees or their families.

Moura hairdresser Jackie Campbell with her client Judy Nobbs
Hairdresser Jackie Campbell and her client Judy Nobbs are concerned about the future of Moura.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)

There is a never-ending flow of warm conversation in the salon — and sometimes the future of mining comes up.

“A lot of people, I guess, don’t talk about the scientific side of it or even potentially the political side of it, but I guess a lot of people talk about the employment side of it,” she said.

“If the mines weren’t here, I guess a lot of people wouldn’t work here or visit here or live here, so I guess potentially we may not be able to sustain as many small businesses.

“I hope that there’s — if we do need to change — that there’s education that goes with employment.”

‘It’s a huge concern’

On the day the ABC visited Ms Campbell’s salon, one of her clients, Judy Nobbs, had come in from her property about 50 kilometres outside of town.

“I think if there was no coal mining town here as such, we would be left with no doctor, no pharmacy — as it is now, we didn’t have a doctor here a couple of weeks ago so none of us were able to even go to the doctors,” Ms Nobbs said.

“I think it’s a huge concern.”

Debbie Elliott is a well-known face around Moura — she heads up the Moura Community Advisory Group and has led campaigns to prevent the closure of the local hospital and to secure funding for an aged care facility.

“We’re very lucky, we’ve got a very open door with the mining group that are here and they’re pretty keen to listen to the community, I think,” she said.

Moura local Debbie Elliott
Debbie Elliott says Moura is working hard to develop tourism.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)

She is hoping the town will still be thriving in future decades.

“I think there will be some changes. I really wouldn’t be surprised if we still have mining here in some form,” she said.

“With all the changes that are happening with how things are mined, there could be improvements … that make the emissions less. 

“But we’ve got a really strong rural community, we’ve got other industry … I know [the local] chamber of commerce is working really hard at the tourism side of things.”

Ms Elliott believes Moura residents have a “tenacity to survive”.

Moura is on the southern end of the Bowen Basin, a major coal-producing region that spreads from the Banana Shire, which includes Moura, to the Central Highlands, Isaac region and the Whitsunday coast.

A lot of the coal from this region is exported through the multi-commodity port at Gladstone.

The industrial city has its eyes on new, greener industries — with big investments in green hydrogen planned by mining magnate Andrew Forrest, as well as several Japanese conglomerates — one in partnership with a state-owned energy generator.

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Darran Schultz is an electrician at the Gladstone port — a very happy employee and a keen fisherman who loves the lifestyle in the coastal city.

He said it is clear the climate has been changing and that the push to address the issue was of paramount concern to the coal industry.

“I should say, that’s my livelihood. If I had the opportunity and the port authority diversified into other areas, it would be easy for me to move over to that,” he said.

Gladstone electrician Darran Schultz
Electrician Darran Schultz says many locals feel threatened.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz )

Mr Schultz said the magnitude of conversations around the future of fossil fuels had at times left locals feeling threatened — like they are “between a rock and a hard place”.

Longtime local Gus Stedman is head of Gladstone Area Promotional and Tourism — his job is spruiking the region as a place to visit or to live.

“You can earn really good money here, you can get a good lifestyle roster in industry, and you can sleep in your own bed every night — as opposed to DIDO or FIFO,” he said.

“I think at some point people were frightened that emissions-intense industries like the smelter and the refineries and that may come to the end of their life. But I think now people are excited about the way that the companies are approaching the transition to a greener economy and less emissions intense.”

Employment key to people’s future hopes

Gladstone is one of several central Queensland communities that have ridden mining’s boom-and-bust cycles over the years, grappling with transient workforces and the associated issues with housing and cost of living.

Opportunity is a key concern for Bailai man Matthew Cooke, who was born and raised in Gladstone and heads the First Nations Bailai Gurang Gooreng Gooreng Taribelang Bunda People Aboriginal Corporation Registered Native Title Body Corporate.

Bailai man Matthew Cooke
Bailai man Matthew Cooke says future employment tops everyone’s list of concerns.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)

He says First Nations engagement during previous booms in Gladstone was not handled well and he is determined to make sure that does not happen again.

“We want to have shared prosperity and we want to know that Gladstone people, including First Nations traditional owners, are going to have shared prosperity in the future of our community,” he said.

Mr Cooke is advocating proactive investment in skills and training for jobs in future industries.

He said employment always features strongly when people talk to him about the region’s future.

“The key message is about jobs, you know, sustainable employment, long-term employment.

“Many of us are also concerned about the importance of climate change and that governments at all levels are taking action to respond … but definitely jobs are featuring high there — and definitely local participation.”

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