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How an outback council took on BHP over robots - and won

Business

Isaac Regional Council mayor Anne Baker said she was gobsmacked when BHP announced it would bring in 86 driverless trucks at the Goonyella coal mine in central Queensland.

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Isaac Regional Council is smack in the middle of coal country. Climate change and the looming automation of the mining industry are big issues in its central town of Moranbah.

So when BHP announced it would introduce 86 driverless trucks to the Goonyella coal mine it was a hammer blow. Everyone knew the issue was being investigated but it was still a shock.

Adding to the fire is the reasonable belief that Goonyella won’t be the last. If autonomous trucks work there, the other seven mines in the portfolio would be keen to adopt them.

Initially the company said there would be no forced redundancies but the consensus is that up to 300 jobs will go. BHP maintains that when the robotic trucks are up and running in two years’ time, growth in the business will mean the job numbers on site will be about the same.

“There will be job losses and that’s a fact,” Isaac Mayor Anne Baker said.

“I’m being honest. I’m not confident (Goonyella is the only target), but I have to accept what is being said now and they are saying there are no plans to introduce on any other pit.”

Anglo Coal also ditched the idea of autonomous trucks, as did Adani, but BHP has made big strides in automation and has a high-tech Integrated Remote Operations Centre in Brisbane dedicated to operations in Queensland.

Baker said the council decided to push back against the decision, not because it was opposed to technology and innovation but because if something new is emerging it wants to be a part of it and not a victim of it.

That’s why Baker fronted up in the Brisbane office of BHP and went face to face with its BMA asset president James Palmer. She said she didn’t hold back.

“I barked straight away,” Baker said.

“They were  a bit gobsmacked by me. I told them: I’m a bit gobsmacked by you guys.

“I told them that they had made a huge announcement when Queensland, that week, was on fire. They pole-vaulted over the most important step in the process – there was no report back to the community to say ‘we have had a review and this is the recommendations and we will be implementing it’.

“We took offence to that.

“Off the back of our pushback they have informed us there will be a local control centre and it will be on the mine site.

“I’m not sure all of the jobs will be there. There will be two to three jobs per shift in the (Goonyella) control room.”

BHP admits it “had very clear and direct feedback from a number of our key stakeholders – including Anne Baker – that demonstrating our regional commitment through providing jobs locally was critical”

BHP maintains no jobs will move to Brisbane and that as many as 50 jobs will be made at the Goonyella control centre. It has also recently hired 62 apprentices at its BMA joint venture mines, its biggest intake since 2014. Most were from central Queensland.

The company is also working with Central Queensland University and TAFE on the development of autonomous qualifications.

“Our commitment to regional Queensland is rock solid, we are here to stay,” Palmer said.

But Baker and the Isaac Council remains wary.

“We have a resolution on council books now that big business when they make big decisions must have a social and economic impact that could come out of it,” Baker said.

“We are open to innovation and chance but we want to be part of it. We want the automation centre to be here. We want the skills and training in the local regional schools.”

 

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