This Opinion Editorial by Coal Action Network Spokesperson Kristin Gillies recently featured in the Greymouth Star and the Southland Times:

The transition to a sustainable future must provide alternative livelihoods for workers, for their families, and for their communities.

Many things get excused in the name of the economy.

The government claims to want a balance between economic growth and environmental concerns.

When the ‘greenies’ go on about how profit is being put before the environment ‘they’re just not being realistic’.

Jobs vs conservation, that’s how it’s framed. Solid Energy’s a big fan of this story.

They like to tell us how they sponsor the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, build skateboard parks, ‘create jobs,’ and provide the country with valuable foreign income.

Well, this state-owned enterprise also hires spies, destroys conservation lands, takes the tops off mountains, and produces one of the dirtiest fossil fuel sources in the world. And last week, they announced they’re on the brink of destroying the livelihoods of 370 workers at Huntly East and Spring Creek mines, and at their Christchurch HQ.

These announcements confirm what many have known for a long time: coal mining is not sustainable. Not for the environment, not for the climate, not for the economy, and not for the workers and communities who depend on Solid for their livelihoods. Hundreds of workers losing their jobs, hundreds more left in limbo or forced to reapply for positions.

Solid Energy bosses are prioritising getting the company into shape for sale , over loyalty to the workers on whose labour the entire industry depends. For the first time ever, I might actually have something in common with Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Solid’s putting profit over people again. To echo Kokshoorn’s words, it’s been a gutting few years for Greymouth, and Solid’s financial mismanagement and resulting financial crisis has only made it worse.

The decision to shut down underground mining on the Coast in favour of opencast mining on Southland farmland might make economic sense to Don Elder, but closer examination reveals it is more of the same flawed thinking that got the state-owned miner into trouble in the first place.

Their showpiece pilot briquetting plant in Mataura has been delayed by unproven technology and health and safety concerns.

Turning lignite into urea will provide a whole lot more of something we don’t need a whole lot more of. Likewise, diesel produced from lignite would be more polluting than the already polluting diesel we use now.

Elder has been trying to drum up support for his crazy ‘think big’ style lignite schemes for years now. He’s been turned down by consecutive governments for funding, and he’s now been abandoned by Ravensdown who determined the lignite-to-urea plan was uneconomic. This is Elder’s great plan for future prosperity. And I haven’t even mentioned the emissions.

Some have used the last week as an opportunity to take a pot shot at Solid Energy’s foray into renewable energy production. They blame this as the cause of Solid’s economic woe. Wood chip and biofuels have been unceremoniously dumped from the portfolio because they are, of course, uneconomic.

It’s hard to compete when the government subsidises the fossil fuel industry so heavily with tax write-offs, low royalty rates, and a farcical Emissions Trading Scheme which hides the true costs of mining. National dropped the obligation for biofuels in our gas stations in its first few days in power which could have made the industry viable. Solid Energy’s foray into renewable energy was the best thing it had done towards securing sustainable jobs for the future. But that’s been dropped, because of economic mismanagement by the Government and by Solid Energy bosses.

As the planet melts (and indeed, scientists are shocked at this year’s record Arctic summer ice melt), jobs in the fossil fuel industries will disappear, and more communities that rely upon them will be left to fend for themselves.

If the current, short-sighted expansion of mining into Southland and other areas across the country goes ahead like the Government hopes, then it won’t just be Huntly and Greymouth, it will be all those communities which will be left to clean up the mess when the mining companies leave. Mining is all about the quick dollar – no matter the costs on communities or the planet.

Solid’s executives blame the vagaries of the market and the dollar for their poor economic performance, two things which we can be sure will only be heightened in the future as the world tries to deal with the twin crises of the economy and the climate.

The world has got more coal than we can afford to burn, and it is all held on the books of mining companies, artificially inflating their value. But if it can’t be mined, then who is going to pay? While Don Elder continues to earn well in excess of a million dollars a year, he expects hundreds of workers to pay the price for the governments, the industries, and his short-sighted vision. It’s time for some accountability.

The costs of the transition away from fossil fuels must be borne by the companies who have profited from them in the past. Not by workers and their communities. Coal Action Network Aotearoa campaigns for a just transition away from coal mining by 2030. We call for no new mines, and for the phasing out of existing mining – not for its sudden demise. The transition to a sustainable future must provide alternative livelihoods for workers, for their families, and for their communities.

These are complex issues, and there is a lot of work to be done. A lot of debates to be held on the Coast and across the country. You won’t hear us calling for the closure of existing mines tomorrow for exactly this reason. 370 people can’t afford to lose their livelihoods. Their families can’t afford to lose the income and all the flow-on services, schools, town centres. Whole communities, like Runanga, can’t survive the loss of the single-industry, and whole regions like the Coast don’t have the alternatives in place yet to transition away from coal. Southland’s future deserves better than to be built built on a boom that leaves it vulnerable to the inevitable bust.

These people – at Huntly, at Spring Creek, and in Christchurch – should not have had their jobs cut. Tomorrow, all 370 should be back at work. And then let’s begin the real conversation about how our communities will survive and flourish – as we undertake a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Kristin Gillies
Coal Action Network Aotearoa