Greg Combet facing reality check over coal jobs
Brad Norington and Greg Callaghan | May 06, 2009
THE pressure on the Rudd Government to get its emissions trading policy right is starkly obvious for Labor’s Greg Combet in his NSW Hunter Valley electorate.
As Kevin Rudd’s Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Mr Combet has the job of tackling coal industry demands for compensation when Labor goes ahead with its planned tax on carbon output.
But he also faces the daily reality of miners such as Arthur Kent, whose job will be gone forever if a carbon tax forces the coal company that employs him out of business.
Mr Kent, who lives at Lake Macquarie in the heart of Mr Combet’s Charlton electorate and has worked at the nearby Myuna colliery for 29 years, puts the choice bluntly: “Without us, the lights go out.”
The Government’s decision to dump its election policy and accept a delayed start-up date for emissions trading will get a welcome response on Friday when Mr Combet sits down with coal industry representatives to restart negotiations on a workable carbon permit scheme.
So far, compensation for the coal industry has been put in Labor’s too-hard basket.
Collieries such as Myuna, owned by Centennial Coal, present the greatest difficulty for a viable scheme as mines that exclusively feed the coal-burning electricity industry. They are unlike others that are immune from the problem of carbon pollution, locally at least, because their coal goes to exports.
Mr Kent, whose daily work regime involves a 180m descent to the coal seam, believes he is better placed than most to know the importance of the coal industry to the larger Australian economy, with or without emissions trading.
Although he cherishes the days when coal was the soul of the Hunter Valley, and was not maligned as a dirty industry, he supports the planned shift to emissions trading and other environmental controls that have changed the face of his profession.
“It’s about being a good corporate citizen, being socially responsible,” said the father of four. But Mr Kent’s double-barrelled position also highlights the difficulty facing Mr Combet, a seasoned hand at the bargaining table from his days as head of Australia’s union movement.
“Coal remains the only really affordable way to supply electricity,” Mr Kent said.
“Demand is now outstripping supply and the price is holding up well. We’re not going anywhere.”
Mr Kent’s employer produces 47per cent of the electricity in NSW. “The two main polluters from coalmining are CO2 and methane, and we already have in place environmental strategies to control them,” Mr Kent said. “We can’t afford to breach those strategies otherwise they would close us.”
The experienced coalminer believes the coal industry will never be “100 per cent clean” but says it can be cleaned up.
Mr Kent wouldn’t be drawn on whether the coal industry had been unfairly treated by emissions trading, the threat of a new tax, or Mr Combet himself, who once worked in the industry. “It’s just important the Government gets it right,” he said.
“Otherwise an entire, very healthy industry is at risk.”
The Rudd Government is in negotiations with the coal industry and electricity generators about possible further changes to its emissions trading scheme.
Katie Brassil, a spokeswoman for Centennial Coal, said the company welcomed the Government’s delay in implementing the scheme and a commitment to consult with the coal industry.
“Otherwise the proposed scheme will merely export jobs and emissions overseas without any benefits whatever to the problem of climate change,” Ms Brassil said.