Coal in Australia, Part 1: Western Australia and Victoria

The first of a series of posts looking at Australia’s coal industry. This post profiles the small coal industries of Western Australia and Victoria.

Australia made 56% of its electricity from coal in 2019. This is down from 62% in 2013-14 and 74% in 2008-9. The make-up of each state’s coal industry and its reliance on coal-fired electricity generation varies significantly. Since South Australia ended coal mining and coal burning in 2015 and 2016 respectively, just four states in Australia now have active coal industries: Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. 

This post will provide an overview of the small coal industries of Western Australia and Victoria. Future parts will look at Queensland and New South Wales, the big fish of Australian coal.

The coal industries of Western Australia and Victoria have very similar characteristics. Although it is often perceived as a resources state built on extractive industries, Western Australia has just two coal mines: the Premier Coal mine, owned by Yancoal, and the trouble-plagued Griffin Coal mine, most recently owned by Lanco Infratech. These two mines supply coal to three power stations: Muja and Collie, owned by the state government, and Bluewaters*, owned by Kansai Electric and Sumitomo.

Both mines and all three power stations are located within 20km of each other near the town of Collie in south-west WA. This is about 200km south of Perth.

This picture is mirrored in Victoria. Victoria is also home to two coal mines and three coal power stations: the Yallourn mine supplies the Yallourn power station (both owned by EnergyAustralia), while the Loy Yang mine supplies the Loy Yang A power station (both owned by AGL) and the Loy Yang B power station (owned by Alinta Energy). 

All mines and power stations are located within about 30km of each other near the towns of Moe, Morwell and Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria’s east. This is about 150km east of Melbourne.

Coal in both states supports few jobs overall but because all the mines and power stations are located near each other, jobs are highly concentrated in Western Australia’s Collie region and Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.** 

All coal mined in both states is burned domestically in power stations – no coal is exported overseas, in stark contrast to New South Wales and Queensland.

There are two important differences between Western Australia and Victoria: Victoria’s coal power stations are significantly bigger and as such they produce a much larger share of the state’s electricity. At full tilt, Victoria’s coal power stations can produce three times more electricity than WA’s, enabling Victoria to source a far greater proportion of its electricity from coal. In 2019, Victoria sourced 70% of its electricity from coal. Western Australia sourced just 23%. 

There is one other difference. Although all coal is polluting, it is true that some coal is worse than others. And Victoria’s coal is some of the most polluting in the world. The emissions intensity of Victoria’s brown coal power stations is fully one-third higher than Western Australia’s black coal power stations – meaning that for every unit of electricity produced, Victoria produces 33% more greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not because Western Australia’s coal is clean; it is because Victoria’s coal is very, very dirty.

Part 2 in this series will look at the much bigger coal industry in Queensland.

*Bluewaters has two units that are sometimes classified as two separate power stations.

** Getting reliable numbers on coal industry jobs by state is challenging. The ABS states that 2,800 people are employed in coal mining in WA but there is no figure for coal power stations, which are aggregated with “Electricity Supply” and “Electricity Generation” – these categories include jobs at coal, gas and hydro power stations, as well as wind and solar. Not very useful.

The ABS actually says there are no jobs in coal mining in Victoria, which is obviously incorrect. Presumably this is because both coal mines are owned by utility companies and therefore jobs at these mines are classified under “Electricity Supply” and “Electricity Generation”. Again, not very useful. See for yourself here in data cube EQ06.

ABC Fact Check have made a decent guess at the number of coal jobs nationally here and explain some of the challenges involved.

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