Flickr/Walt Jabsco, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The government professes its enthusiasm for the Paris climate agreement – the aim of which, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, requires us to leave over 80% of all fossil fuel reserves untouched. Yet David Cameron’s administration is still going all out to frack for shale gas and, astonishingly, it’s still allowing millions of tonnes of coal to be dug up from massive opencast coal mines.
Britain’s last deep coal mine shut its doors last December, its closure marked with sombre reports that, understandably, mourned the passing of an industry that once employed hundreds of thousands of men. It came not long after the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, pledged to phase out coal power stations by 2025. But reports of the death of British coal have been greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, in 2016, plans are afoot for new opencast mines that would extract a further 10 million tonnes of coal from UK soil. This highly destructive form of mining – gouging great holes in the landscape, employing far fewer workers than deep mines – has been the preferred method of profit-seeking companies since the coal industry was privatised in 1994. Two huge mines, in particular, are currently in contention.
The beautiful Druridge Bay in Northumberland is the proposed site for one of these mines: Highthorn, a 3-million-tonne monstrosity. I visited Druridge Bay recently with local members of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Save Druridge campaign group. As we walked through the sand dunes lining the shore, I tried to imagine how this planned carbuncle would look, squatting between a nature reserve thronged with birds, National Trust beaches and the windswept arc of the bay. But it wouldn’t only wreck a stunning view, tourism is also a big part of Northumberland’s economy. It’s no surprise that the owner of the bustling café next to the beach, full to bursting when we visit it for coffee, is vociferously opposed to the mine.
The company agitating for Highthorn, Banks Group, already runs two opencast coal mines to the south, on land belonging to climate sceptic Times columnist Viscount Matt Ridley. But they’ll face a fight to get Highthorn approved. The community at Druridge has seen off similar projects before – in the 1980s, they successfully fought off plans for two nuclear power stations on exactly the spot where the opencast mine is now proposed.
The second major mine on the cards this year lies in the heart of the South Wales coalfield. Merthyr Tydfil, one of the poorest constituencies in the country, is already burdened by Britain’s biggest opencast coal pit at Ffos-y-fran – the coal-dust it spews out soils laundry and clogs the lungs of a population already suffering from high levels of respiratory diseases. Two years ago the mine operators, Miller Argent, announced plans for a new 6-million-tonne opencast pit on the other side of the hill at Nant Llesg. Nant Llesg was thought to be defeated after a concerted campaign by the community and Friends of the Earth that saw Caerphilly Council make an historic break with the past and reject the mine last August. But over the winter, Miller Argent appealed the decision, going over the heads of the council and community to the national Planning Inspectorate for Wales.
Their first move has been to apply to enclose the common land where the mine would be dug with a five-kilometre fence – notifying the community of their intentions with a small advert in the backpages of a local newspaper on New Year’s Eve. If that was designed to avoid attention, it hasn’t worked: a staggering 8,913 people have objected, outraged that a coal company is pursuing enclosure in the twenty-first century.
As if that wasn’t underhand enough, the murky dealings around Nant Llesg have grown still murkier with news that the parent companies of Miller Argent have recently sold their shares to a new investor, Gwent Investments. The quiet transaction – to a firm with no experience of mining and, it appears, no capital prior to last September – has raised questions about whether these opencast mines would ever be properly restored. The Welsh government has previously commissioned work to advise it on the risks associated with operators failing to restore opencast sites, and the Welsh Assembly voted for a moratorium on opencast mining last year, but the Welsh Government haven’t yet acted on this.
Instead of pursuing fracking and prolonging the life of old coal, Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to end fossil fuel extraction on UK soil by the end of this decade. It’s entirely achievable: permit no new coal mines, and the existing sites will exhaust themselves by 2020. Forget the pipe-dream of shale gas, which has been rejected by communities and will never deliver the energy security the government claims to want. Instead, harness what our rainy, windy little island has in abundance: renewable energy from the wind, waves, sun and tides. And as the oil price rout threatens thousands of jobs in North Sea oil and gas, make sure these skilled workers don’t join dole queues but are retrained in installing offshore wind turbines, wave power machines and tidal arrays.
Britain’s fortunes were built on our stocks of coal, oil and gas. Yet our future prosperity lies not in the dirt beneath our feet, but in the elements that surround us.