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

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

Trade 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 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 energy generated from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives – by advising governments on policies and regulations, setting national plans and targets, and providing funding and support to governments. places and workers who need it most.

Regional areas dependent on fossil fuel industries are concerned about the impact the energy transition will have on them.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Green Senator Penny Allman-Payne, of Gladstone in Queensland, said the transition so far has been “haphazard”.

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

“And we will not have the ability to take advantage of the real opportunities that we can seize during the transition of the economy.”

What do they look like in other countries?

Next Economy CEO Amanda Cahill, who works with regional economies undergoing economic change, says transition authorities have been crucial in countries like Germany, Canada and Spain.

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

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

“Now that area is known as a health center, they have attracted a lot of health services to the area, they are also a reference place for training, tourism and a lot of other sectors and also ecological production.”

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

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

How would it work?

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

“The goals … have to be set nationally and that allows for coordination between states that are all working on this,” he said.

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

“There need to be organisms in the regions as things are changing. That planning has to be driven locally because every place is different.”

A hand painted sign with the inscription
A sign outside 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 more than just the workforce.

“Workforce development is a pillar we need to consider in managing change, but so is energy security, affordability and access, as well as economic diversification and helping industry adapt,” he said.

“If you’re going to take a holistic approach to this, it can’t really fit into one of those themes.

“It has to be your centralized authority, which is coordinating the people who work in those different areas.”

Who supports the idea?

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

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

Senator Allman-Payne said the Greens intended to submit a bill to the federal parliament establishing a statutory authority.

“The government indicated during the climate negotiations that it would consider Green plans for a transitional authority. So we are really confident that they will negotiate with us on this,” he said.

“The transition requires a dedicated national body.”

Will the federal government support a transitional authority?

It’s unclear, but federal Labor has supported the idea in the past.

Creating a “just transitional authority” was a promise made during Labor’s failed 2019 election campaign.

Chris Bowen walks down a hall of Parliament.
Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen would not say if he supports a national transitional authority.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

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

Instead, his office provided the following statement:

“At the September 2022 Employment and Skills Summit, the government engaged in a coordinated approach with industry, trade unions, local government and communities to help affected workers and regional communities thrive in the future of clean energy.

This is consistent with the National Cabinet Agreement of 31 August 2022 on the importance of delivering meaningful energy transmission projects nationwide and supporting regional communities and the workforce to seize the opportunities that emerge from Australia’s transition. towards a net zero emission economy “.

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