Could a national energy transition authority allay the fears of communities dependent on fossil fuel industries?

Written by

The transition to net zero will be one of Australia’s biggest energy transformations, and for communities dependent on fossil fuel industries, there is much anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

Unions and the Business Council of Australia have joined a growing chorus of voices calling for a national Energy Transition Authority to plan and coordinate the change.

So what would an energy transition authority actually do, and will it ever happen?

What is an energy transition authority?

The general idea behind such a body is that it would coordinate the nation’s energy transition – from fossil fuel-generated energy to renewable alternatives – by advising governments on policy and regulations, setting national plans and targets, and providing funding and support to the sites and workers , who need it most.

Coal exports
Regional areas dependent on fossil fuel industries are concerned about how the energy transition will affect them.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Greens senator Penny Allman-Payne, from Gladstone in Queensland, said so far the transition was happening in a “haphazard manner”.

“If we don’t do this in a coordinated and managed way, what will happen is that some communities will benefit, some will be left behind,” she said.

“And we won’t have the ability to take advantage of the real opportunities that we can take as we restructure the economy.”

How do they look in other countries?

The Next Economy chief executive Amanda Cahill, who works with regional economies undergoing economic transition, says transitional authorities have been crucial in countries including Germany, Canada and Spain.

A woman smiles at the camera
Dr. Cahill says many people in regional communities support a transitional authority.(ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

“One of the most well-cited examples were from the Ruhr Valley in Germanywhere they started quite a long time ago, it was a very coal-intensive region and they could see that coal was in decline,” Dr Cahill said.

“Now this area is known as a health center, they’ve attracted a lot of health services to the area, they’re also a go-to place for training and tourism and a whole lot of other industry and also green manufacturing.”

For workers in coal-related industries, the authority offered early retirement, relocation, training and support for workers to move into other sectors, such as the service industry.

A miner kisses a piece of coal while his colleagues huddle around him.
A miner kisses the symbolic last piece of coal mined in Bottrop, Germany, after the country closed its black coal mines in 2018.(Reuters: Thilo Schmuelgen)

How would that work?

Australia already has some regional transitional authorities, such as in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. But Dr. Cahill believes that an energy transition authority should be established at both regional and national level.

“The goals … have to be set at the national level and that allows for coordination across the states that are all working on this,” she said.

“But in terms of the support, it has to get funding channeled through the states — that decision-making on the ground.

“There needs to be bodies in the regions as things change. That planning needs to be led locally because every place is different.”

A hand-painted sign reading 'Hazelwood workers matter' sits in the long grass on the road to the power station.
A sign outside the Hazelwood power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley on its last day of operation in 2017.(ABC News: Nicole Asher)

And Dr. Cahill said it was about much more than just the workforce.

“Workforce development is one pillar that we need to look at in dealing with change, but so is energy security and affordability and access, so is economic diversification and helping industry adapt,” she said.

“If you want to take a holistic approach to this, it can’t really fall under one of those themes.

“It has to be its own centralized authority that coordinates people working in the different areas.”

Who supports the idea?

In addition to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Dr. Cahill that there was “surprisingly widespread” support for a national energy transition authority.

She said it included support from regional councils, social and community groups, as well as pension funds, investors and environmental groups.

Senator Allman-Payne said the Greens planned to introduce a bill to federal parliament that would establish a statutory authority.

“The government indicated during the climate negotiations that they would consider the Greens’ plans for a transitional authority. So we really hope they will negotiate with us on that,” she said.

“Transition requires a dedicated national body.”

Will the federal government support a transitional authority?

It is unclear, but federal Labor has previously supported the idea.

The creation of a ‘Just Transition Authority’ was a promise made during Labour’s failed 2019 general election campaign.

Chris Bowen walks along a corridor in Parliament House.
Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen would not say whether he supports a National Transitional Authority.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen declined to answer a series of questions from the ABC about whether the Government still supported such a body or whether it would support the Greens’ proposed legislation.

Instead, his office issued the following statement:

“At the Jobs and Skills Summit in September 2022, the Government committed to a co-ordinated approach with industry, unions, local authorities and communities to help affected workers and regional communities thrive in a clean energy future.

This is consistent with the National Cabinet’s agreement on 31 August 2022 on the importance of delivering nationally significant energy transmission projects and supporting regional communities and workforces to capture the opportunities arising from Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy.”

About the author

Leave a Comment