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

The transition to net zero will be one of Australia’s biggest energy transformations and, for communities dependent on fossil fuel industries, there’s a lot of 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 power to renewable alternatives — by providing advice to governments on policy and regulations, setting national plans and targets, and providing funds and support to the places and workers that need it the most.

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

Greens Senator Penny Allman-Payne, from Gladstone in Queensland, said so far the transition was occurring in a “haphazard way”.

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

“And we’re not going to have the ability to take advantage of the real opportunities that we can take as we transition the economy.”

What do they look like in other countries?

The Next Economy chief executive Amanda Cahill, who works with regional economies that are undergoing economic change, says transition 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 are supportive of a transition authority.(ABC Capricorn: Tobi Loftus)

“One of the most well-cited examples was from the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where 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 that area is known as a health hub, they’ve attracted a lot of health services into 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, like the services industry.

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

How would it work?

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

“The targets … need to be set at a national level and that enables coordination across the states who are all doing work on this,” she said.

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

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

A hand-painted sign which reads 'Hazelwood workers matter' sits in the long grass on the road to the power station.
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 about much more than just the workforce.

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

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

“It needs to be its own centralized authority, that is coordinating people working in those different areas.”

Who supports the idea?

As well as 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.

She said that included the support of regional councils, social and community groups, as well as superannuation funds, investors and environment groups.

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

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

“Transition does require a dedicated national body.”

Will the federal government support a transition authority?

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

Creating a ‘Just Transition Authority’ was a promise made during Labor’s failed 2019 election campaign.

Chris Bowen walks along a corridor in Parliament House.
Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen wouldn’t say if he supports a national transition authority.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

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

Instead, his office provided the following statement:

“At the Jobs and Skills Summit in September 2022, the Government committed to a coordinated approach with industry, unions, local government and communities to assist affected workers and regional communities prosper 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 emerging from Australia’s transition to a net-zero emissions economy.”


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