The coal boom is over – that’s the verdict of businesses in the mining town of Moranbah in northern Queensland.
At the height of the mining boom, Moranbah real estate agent Bella Exposito did not have a rental property to spare.
The town, which was literally built on coal in 1971, was experiencing unprecedented demand for housing as workers and their families flocked to the region.
Even decades-old weatherboard homes were selling for upwards of $600,000 while tenants could expect to pay $1,800 per week for a roof over their heads.
But now it is obvious the good times have well and truly come to an end.
“Prices have changed dramatically,” Ms Exposito said, pointing at a three-bedroom home on leafy Leichhardt Street.
“They bought it for $800,000. It’s now only worth $200,000.”
As values fell, the vacancy rate climbed and there are now 300 empty rental properties in Moranbah.
Ms Exposito said she had never seen anything like it in her 27 years in the business.
“I have five houses myself and they have been empty for two years,” she said.
A string of recent announcements on job cuts and mine closures is likely to make matters worse.
Axe falls on jobs in the region
The biggest employer in the region, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA), is planning to axe 700 positions from six local coal mines.
Hundreds more could be without work when Brazilian miner Vale and Japanese trader Sumitomo cease production at Isaac Plains by January.
This week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott officially opened BMA’s Caval Ridge coal mine and said that coal was “good for humanity”, boldly declaring it had “a big future”.
But the Caval Ridge project is staffed by fly-in, fly-out workers who typically do not spend their money in the town.
If business did not improve, local baker and long time resident Steve Hanvey said he would be forced to close down by Christmas.
“This shop relies on residents coming in and buying our bread, rolls, cakes and pies,” he told 7.30.
Every morning, before the sun has come up, Mr Hanvey loads his delivery van with fresh bread to be delivered to workers camps around Moranbah.
There used to be nearly 1,000 hungry miners to feed at each camp, but numbers have dwindled and many mining companies now prefer to source their bread from the coastal cities of Mackay and Rockhampton.
“We’ve got two delivery vans. We’re down to one van doing only one trip each morning,” Mr Hanvey said.
“We’re down to four staff and it’s getting to the stage where I need to be making some decisions shortly about the number of bakers that we’ve got.”
Companies seek to address market oversupply
Prices for both metallurgical or coking coal, used for steel production, and thermal coal, used for electricity, have plummeted since 2012.
Most analysts attributed the fall to oversupply rather than weakening demand.
In fact, demand for Australian coal is increasing, according to the mining lobby and a leading consultancy firm.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said India was set to triple coal imports.
The demand across Asia is enormous at the moment. We don’t see a slowdown in demand over the next 20 years.
“Australia’s going to be a big source of that coal,” he told 7.30.
“Nobody has actually found a way of making steel without coking coal and we’re the world’s biggest exporter of coking coal.”
Director of commercial services at HDR Salva, Chris Urzaa, said Asia was a “bright spot” for thermal coal producers too.
“The demand across Asia is enormous at the moment,” he told 7.30.
“We don’t see a slowdown in demand over the next 20 years.”
Mr Urzaa said low coal prices were the result of the market being oversupplied.
“It made so much sense to produce every single extra tonne of coal that you could during the boom years because you were making so much money,” he said.
Now the boom years are over, Mr Urzaa said mining companies were trying to correct the oversupply by slowing down production.
“There are a lot of shutdowns going on in the coking coal space,” he told 7.30.
“Those shutdowns are bringing the market back into balance much quicker.
“We expect coking coal to come back into balance in 2016, but we believe thermal coal will come back in 2015.”
In the meantime, exporters are being hit hard. A recent survey by HDR Salva revealed a third of all Australian coal exporters were trading at a loss due to the low prices.
Families contemplate their future in Moranbah
At a crowded park full of mothers and their children, Moranbah Mayor Anne Baker is reminded of her hope for the town.
“We need to have permanency and people living in the community,” she said.
Moranbah’s population has always fluctuated in sync with the coal mining industry, and the latest downturn could force more residents to leave.
“It’s not a new risk, which is why I say people need to learn from the past,” she said.
“I’m asking for [mining companies] not to have such a slash-and-burn approach.”
Natalie Oram moved to Moranbah with her family last year, and while it took some getting used to, they have come to love the area.
The town has, however, become considerably quieter since they first arrived and the possibility of further job cuts weighs heavily on their minds.
“People are going to have to move if they’re going to lose their jobs because that’s what brings you here,” she said.
“My husband’s still got his job, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”