Are coal mining jobs coming back?

Coal mining plant

Does coal mining in Australia still have a bright future? And what does that mean for jobs?

If you listen to the Australian Government, former prime minister Tony Abbott, and the proponents behind Queensland’s controversial Carmichael project, the Australian coal mining industry has a future as bright as the electric light bulbs it powers.

But is that really the case? With a global push towards renewable energy, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and ‘green’ energy becoming cheaper all the time, does coal really have a future? And what does that mean for those who have coal mining jobs?

Coal mining has been getting bad press!

US President Donald Trump has helped put the coal state of the global coal industry back in the headlines over the past couple of years. Similarly, in Australia, plans by India-based firm Adani to create the nation’s largest coal mine in Queensland have kept the industry in the headlines. In both cases, the pushback from not just green groups and environmentalists but seemingly the wider public has been strong.

At the same time, the renewable energy industry is booming. While coal, and coal jobs, are seen as outdated, old-fashioned and bad for the planet, the apparently ‘green’ jobs created by demand for electric vehicles and batteries are seen as progressive and the way of the future.

If there’s an irony to this, it’s that creating those batteries also requires mining – and it’s creating an investment and jobs boom in the so-called ‘battery minerals’ sector, which includes commodities like lithium and cobalt.

RELATED: Mining the future: is lithium really the next big thing?

Australia’s luck, in terms of its mineral wealth, continues. The country was blessed with huge coal deposits – allowing it to create a long-standing, high-employing, multi-billion-dollar industry on the back of it. And Australia is also blessed with the world’s largest lithium deposits – and mining companies are well on the road to exploiting that fact already. The ‘battery minerals’ job boom is on the way.

Earth-Moving

Despite everything, coal looks set to stay

But is coal really going away? Sure, old coal-fired power stations are being closed down as governments commit to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but a company like Adani still believes it’s viable to invest $16.5 billion and produce 60 million tonnes of coal a year from its Carmichael project. What’s more, the company sees a 60-year life for the project.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Global demand for coal has fallen in each of the last three years and will remain flat between 2017 and 2022
  • That’s predicted to lead to a decade of stagnation for coal consumption, according to the International Energy Agency
  • The share of coal in the global energy mix in 2016 was 27%. That’s set to fall to 26% in 2022
  • Coal-fired power generation globally is actually growing at around 1.2% a year
  • However, that growth is being outstripped by other energy sources and coal’s share of the power mix will drop to 36% by 2022
  • Indian coal-fired power is growing at 4% a year. China’s demand is also high. But Europe’s demand is dropping rapidly.

So, what’s the future of coal mining jobs in Australia?

At the time of writing, in August 2018, there are almost 500 coal-mining-related jobs vacant around the country. For now, there is plenty of opportunity in the industry.

Companies are still investing in projects – and it’s not just Adani. There are at least nine more projects – expected to create about 1500 operational jobs – in the pipeline, just in in Queensland.

RELATED: What are the facts about Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine?

In November last year the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 10 major new coal mines or mine extension projects were in the pipeline in New South Wales alone. They would account for 75 million tonnes of coal a year. That’s a lot of jobs.

And Japan, Australia’s biggest export market for coal, is building 30 more coal-fired power stations.

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So, for the right candidate, it appears there will be coal mining jobs available well into the future. However, Mining People General Manager of Workforce Operations Shane Moore has a warning for those working in coal about their job prospects in the wider Australian mining industry.

“Only a few limited coal mining jobs have transferable skills to other parts of the industry,” he said.

“For example, Open Pit Operators do have transferable skills. However, the skills of Underground Coal Mining Operators are not transferable to hard rock mining, as the mining methods are entirely different.”

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Dan Hatch
Mining People International