As Wales rejects an opencast mine, is the end of coal nigh?

In a country famous for its coal, a totemic decision has just been made.

Guy Shrubsole
6 August 2015
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Yesterday, something extraordinary happened: a council in South Wales, the birthplace of the fossil fuel age, defied the coal industry and said no to an opencast coal mine.

Wales kickstarted the industrial revolution with coal from the valleys around Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. But yesterday councillors for the area made an historic decision that suggests Wales is now leading the way out of the fossil fuel era.

For years, local residents like Alyson and Chris Austin of the United Valleys Action Group have campaigned against the imposition of opencast mining onto the communities of the valleys. Opencast is incredibly destructive, as I saw myself on a recent visit to the vast Ffos-y-fran mine on the edge of Merthyr, the largest in the UK. It scars the landscape, spews coal dust into the air that adds to the already poor health of residents in Britain’s poorest constituency, and the roar of the diggers can be heard across the valley day and night. Yet the UK still dug up 8 million tonnes of coal this way last year.

Alyson and Chris have lived with this devastation a couple of hundred yards from their house for the past eight years. But then they discovered that the coal firm, Miller Argent, had plans for another, 6-million-tonne opencast mine on the other side of the hill at Nant Llesg. They and other residents built an alliance to oppose Nant Llesg that spanned the valleys, bringing together ex-miners with Friends of the Earth members, birdwatchers and workers in a local cosmetics factory that stood to close if the new mine was opened.

Back in April, that alliance scored a first historic victory when members of the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for a moratorium on opencast coal. It was the first parliament in the world to do so. But the Welsh Government ignored it, and also refused to call in the looming decision on Nant Llesg, despite being petitioned by over 6,000 people.

The campaigners weren’t deterred, however, and at Caerphilly Council’s planning hearing on 24th June, spoke calmly but forcefully against the opencast proposals. The councillors were moved to think twice, and voted to defer their decision until 5th August, instructing their officials to draw up reasons for why they could reject Nant Llesg. They were buoyed up when, five days later, Lancashire council voted to reject fracking: shining proof that people power can work.

Residents and campaigners continued to make the case for why this new opencast coalmine wasn’t wanted and wasn’t needed. A letter from Alyson to councillors urging them to reject Nant Llesg garnered over 7,000 signatures. Independent legal advice commissioned by Friends of the Earth provided councillors with solid reasons for rejecting the mine on grounds of climate change, visual impact and damage to the local environment.

In the last few days, it transpired that councillors had been coming under sustained pressure from Miller Argent, who had sent them a bullying letter threatening to sue the council if they rejected the mine. But such intimidation appeared to backfire as Guardian coverage of the incident sparked a public outcry.

Yesterday, hundreds of people rallied outside the council offices ahead of the crunch decision. Speakers at the rally ranged from local campaigners like Alyson and Chris Austin to Bethan Jenkins AM, Marianne Owens from PCS union, and Friends of the Earth's director Craig Bennett. Messages of solidarity were read out from German activists ahead of the upcoming Ende Gelaende protests against opencast coal in the Rhineland.

The tension as everyone waited for the decision was nail-biting. But then councillor after councillor stood to speak against the mine. “Sometimes the pound note is not God; sometimes we have to put our environment and our way of life first,” said one councillor. Other councillors raised concerns about climate change and the visual impact of the mine as reasons to reject it. After what seemed an eternity the committee chair took in the votes. “Any votes for Nant Llesg going ahead?” Pause. “No abstentions?”. Pause. “Then this application is REJECTED.”

The room of people waiting on tenterhooks exploded with cheers and tears of joy. I'll never forget it until I die.

This is a victory for a courageous community that's spent years opposing this mine, and decades living with the effects of other such opencast pits. The company may yet appeal (as fracking firm Cuadrilla have in Lancashire), leading to a public inquiry. But the community isn’t going to back down, and Friends of the Earth and the other climate activists who have supported their cause will stand with them all the way.

The wider implications could be huge. In the space of two months, two communities in Lancashire and South Wales have dealt huge blows to the fossil fuel industry. Welsh communities have sought to kill off coal, the oldest and dirtiest of the UK’s extractive industries; while Lancashire residents have rejected the opening up of an entirely new fossil fuel resource, shale gas. Both are facets of the same movement battling to leave fossil fuels in the ground and avert - in the nick of time - catastrophic climate change.  

Because if the UK is to play its fair part in tackling global warming, we have to end our use of coal in less than a decade. The Committee on Climate Change says we have to phase out our coal power stations by the early 2020s. Even Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, accepts this logic: she’s repeatedly said she expects coal to provide just 1% of our electricity by 2025, and her department’s projections show a collapse in coal use over the next eight years. But wishful thinking alone won’t make this happen; the Government needs to draw up a solid plan to bring about the end of coal. And it needs to follow the lead of Caerphilly council and the communities of south Wales in saying: no more digging for coal – it’s time to leave it in the ground.

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