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With coal-fired power stations scheduled for closure, can the remaining pits – and their camaraderie – survive?
Jack Saunders is a miner. At 22, he is one of the youngest in the country. Small, dark and wiry, he looks even younger than his age but has worked at Hatfield colliery, near Doncaster, for four years and loves it.
Mining is in the blood, he says. “My uncles, my dad, my grandad, my great-grandad have all done it,” he says. “I never thought I’d get an opportunity to go underground because the pit was shut when I was 16, but it opened back up when I was 18. It’s something that doesn’t happen for young lads these days. All my mates in the village are always asking me questions, but you can’t explain it because it’s a totally different world.”
The average age of the remaining 3,000 or so deep miners is around 50. For them, spending much of life underground is routine.
But Jack is young enough and his experience fresh enough to summon up the strangeness of the occupation. It was only Jack who mentioned the lack of lavatories at the coalface: you had to dig a hole. Digging really is a way of life.
Until the accidents in September at the Gleision pit, in south Wales, and the Kellingley mine, in Yorkshire, which left five men dead, people might have assumed we no longer mined coal in the UK; that an industry which once employed a million men had ceased some time after Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill waged their titanic struggle in 1984-85.
But we do still have an industry, albeit a small one producing 19m tonnes of coal annually, about a third of the UK’s consumption. Last winter, almost half our electricity was generated by coal.
The deaths of the five miners produced a remarkable outpouring of feeling, especially in south Wales.
Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, historian of Welsh mining and son of the former general secretary of the NUM in Wales, says that despite its precipitous decline the industry has not lost its cultural power. “We’ve always said that Wales was built on coal, and there is a special emotional relationship even today when there are so few miners left. The valley communities still see themselves as mining communities and respond accordingly.”
The watershed for mining was the strike of 1984-85. When it began there were 160,000 miners. The defeat for the NUM after a bitter year-long battle ensured the industry would be privatised and much reduced, as the newly privatised electricity industry was freed to buy coal from foreign suppliers.
Many pits closed in the 80s and 90s, but a few staggered on, and energy price rises in the past couple of years have prompted a modest revival. The coal industry has folded across much of western Europe but in the UK it has managed to survive, “clinging on by its fingertips”, as Margaret Faull, director of the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield, puts it.
Chris Kitchen, the successor to Arthur Scargill, the NUM general secretary of the mid-80s strike, says: “We knew what we were fighting for. We knew it was a slippery slope, that they’d sell the industry off. I couldn’t see anything wrong with a nationalised energy industry that supported a national coal industry and vice versa. We’ve got the coal, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the manpower to mine the coal profitably and, compared to the rest of the world, very safely. That would have given the … stability of not relying on imports.”
Kitchen’s style differs from Scargill’s, being more pragmatic. “Most people don’t know who I am and that’s not a bad thing. Scargill did what he did in his era because he reacted to the conditions of the time. My conditions are a lot different. I’m more into preserving what we’ve got … trying to improve things.
“I’m not out to change the world and neither is the NUM – which was the ethos at that time. We were a big, powerful, union and could dictate policy. Times have changed, but it does sadden me that short-termism and people looking for profits are selling us all down the river.”
Kitchen’s constant refrain is that the coal industry should be nurtured because the UK’s coal stocks are abundant and the alternative, in the medium term at least, is dependence on foreign gas. He says mining provides well-paid jobs – key coalface workers can earn £70,000-plus a year in pits with good bonus schemes – and keeps communities alive. He contrasts the social stability that characterised mining areas with the drug and gang culture that came with de-industrialisation.
Mining is now at another watershed. The coal-fired power stations, the industry’s main market, are due to start closing in the middle of this decade in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond 2020 things will depend on exploiting carbon capture and storage to produce “clean coal”. The idea is to pump pollutants under the seabed rather than into the atmosphere, but progress on developing the technology has so far been glacial.
The government spooked the industry in October when it scrapped a carbon capture project at the Longannet power station in Fife, blaming technical problems. And Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, added fuel to the flames when he said recently that £1bn set aside for carbon capture might be diverted to more immediate infrastructure projects to boost the economy.
“There are too many imponderables at the moment and against that background people won’t invest,” says David Brewer, director general of the Confederation of UK Coal Producers. “The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been, at best, lukewarm towards the coal industry. They set themselves carbon targets, and the easiest way to meet them is to switch from coal to gas.”
DECC denies it is lukewarm towards mining, and insists it remains committed to carbon capture. “We took the right and responsible decision on Longannet,” says a spokesman, “but are clear that £1bn remains available to support future projects. There are a number of promising projects in the UK, and we will be launching a new, accelerated, selection process as soon as possible. The money will be made available when the new projects need it, which is likely to be over a number of years.”
The government points to the launch of a “flagship test programme” at the Ferrybridge coal-fired power station in Yorkshire. “This project, part of a £125m government-led research and development programme, is the first operating carbon-capture plant attached to a power station at this scale in the UK,” says the DECC spokesman.
Jonson Cox, who last year became chairman of UK Coal – Britain’s largest domestic producer and owner of four of the remaining six deep mines – sees a future for the industry into the early 2020s, but is not prepared to offer predictions beyond that.
“Here is a legacy industry with really skilled jobs, with an iconic role as an industry and an iconic role in the communities it serves,” Cox says. “It has the potential to find other, cleaner, ways of exploiting the energy value, but it will be seven to 10 years before we really know whether that can be exploited.”
His job, he believes, is turning the company around, sustaining it for the next decade, and making sure the “mining skill base” is still there 10 years from now if the development of clean coal encourages a new generation of coal-fired power stations.
UK Coal made big losses in 2008-10, largely because of spiralling labour costs, but it has just recorded a small half-yearly profit, and Cox believes the corner has been turned. “We’ve got some momentum back into the company, and we’ve got a recovery plan. It can work, and rising prices help.”
The company has, however, warned the workforce at its largest pit, Daw Mill, in Warwickshire, that it is reviewing operations there. Some see this as a negotiating tactic in the battle to drive down labour costs.
The government claims that it is committed to the long-term future of coal, yet the post-privatisation fragmentation of the industry, started under the Conservatives and continued under Labour, is striking. As a nationalised industry, everything was centrally planned; productive mines subsidised less productive ones, miners felt they had “jobs for life” (they talk of “signing up” at 17, as if they were joining the army), there was a highly structured training programme and career progression, and great emphasis was placed on research. British Coal was working on clean coal technology in the 1980s.
Since privatisation it has been every mine for itself, with many going to the wall and frequent changes of ownership. There has been no master plan and little continuity in an industry where long investment cycles mean planning is everything. There has also been fragmentation in union representation. The 1984-85 strike led to the formation of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which opposed Scargill. The division has never been healed, and the few remaining miners are more or less evenly split between the two unions. In an age of amalgamation and super-unions, these two minnows carry on with tiny memberships and a sense of mutual loathing.
Cox is probably right to concentrate on the next decade. The longer-term future for mining is murky, despite DECC’s warm words. More than half of the UK’s coal now comes from open-cast mining (more akin to quarrying), and the trend away from high-investment deep mining is likely to continue.
Wayne Thomas, secretary of the South Wales NUM, doubts whether another shaft will ever be sunk in the UK. He says there could just be open-cast, or drift mining, where tunnels are driven into hillsides.
For the moment, the men who work in deep mining are grateful for what they have and dust, and the heat and humidity. They are working a mile underground, at coalfaces up to five miles from the bottom of the pit shaft. It can take an hour and a half to reach the face from the top of the shaft. Yet still they insist it is a job like no other and enthuse about the craic and camaraderie. “We’ve got a sense of humour nobody else has got,” says Jack’s father, Howard Saunders, a miner for almost 40 years, “very dry, funny … you wouldn’t get away with it anywhere else. If you worked in a factory and said the sort of things we say, you’d be up the road.”
They are fond of practical jokes. One trick was to put a mouse in a colleague’s pocket or food box. That stopped after the 1984-85 strike.
All the mice – once plentiful in the mines because of the food brought down by the miners – had starved. Mrs Thatcher, mouse-killer!
They have a pithy language of their own, too. Jack talks about spending his first month as a miner getting his “pit feet”, adjusting to life underground. But the expression that truly encapsulates mining is used by Bob Fitzpatrick, a miner for almost 30 years, with the scars on his legs to prove it. “When Yorkshire puts her foot down,” he says, “it comes and that’s it. You can’t help it.”
“When Yorkshire puts her foot down” – a poetic way of capturing the horror of a mine collapse. The expression is an ancient one; Howard Saunders says his grandfather liked to use it.
It seems that miners through the ages have had a fatalistic streak. Except when it comes to the future of the industry. Against all the odds they refuse to let mining die.
Two accidents this year were a reminder that the UK still has a mining industry – and that it can still be desperately dangerous work. On 15 September seven men were working at the tiny Gleision colliery near Swansea, which had nine full-time staff. They had been using explosives to extract coal 90 metres below the surface, when a blast triggered a flood. A 30-hour rescue operation followed in a fruitless effort to save Charles Breslin, Phillip Hill, Garry Jenkins and David Powell.
The mine manager, Malcolm Fyfield, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. He was bailed until the end of January. He has not been charged, and inquiries continue.
A fortnight after the Gleision deaths Gerry Gibson, 49, died at the UK Coal-owned Kellingley mine in North Yorkshire when a roof gave way near the coalface. Another man was injured. A Health and Safety Executive investigation could take up to six months.
UK Coal’s chairman, Jonson Cox, accepts the increase in deaths must be reversed. “Safety performance has declined, and we had already introduced a massive safety programme,” he said, adding that Gibson’s death showed it had to be implemented “faster and with more intensity”.
The European Union has made €5bn of fossil fuel loans through its financial arm despite carbon reduction targets for members
The world’s biggest lender to energy and climate action projects almost doubled the funds given to fossil fuels between 2007 and 2010, a new report published on Thursday reveals.
The European Investment Bank (EIB), a bigger lender than the World Bank, also tripled the lending to renewable energy according to the campaign group behind the report, Bankwatch. But the group said that overall, the bank is failing in its responsibility to further the goals of the European Union, including cutting carbon emissions by at least 20% by 2020.
“Our study highlights once more the secret hypocrisy at the heart of EU climate action,” said Piotr Trzaskowski, Bankwatch energy co-ordinator. “While the EU appears to be the world’s most progressive actor in the global struggle against climate change, the financial arm of the union is putting billions of euros of public money into energy infrastructure that will lock in countries into a fossil-fuel dependent path for four or five decades. Considering what we are hearing from [the UN climate talks in] Durban this week, if even the EU acts this way, we are tragically on a sure road to disaster.”
The EIB offers loans subsidised by government guarantees, but at the UN climate change negotiations in South Africa on Wednesday, Nicholas Stern told delegates that rich nations were wasting money and disadvantaging renewable energy by giving away tax breaks, loans and other subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. In November, the International Energy Agency warned that on current trends, the world will have built enough fossil fuel burning plants by 2016 to break the 2C limit deemed “safe” by scientists.
A spokesman for the bank said: “The EIB is committed to supporting key investment in projects that support the fight against climate change. This has been demonstrated this week in Durban with new funding for flagship renewable energy and water projects, as well as support for the South African renewables initiative.”
The Bankwatch report shows EIB fossil fuel lending rose from €2.8bn in 2007 to €5.0bn, while renewable energy loans rose from €1.7bn to €5.8bn. Funding for power transmission infrastructure rose over fourfold over the period, from €1.1bn to €4.6bn. Loans for nuclear power fell from €200m to zero in 2010.
Bankwatch also criticised the EIB for allotting less than 5% of the €49bn over the four years to energy efficiency projects: fossil fuels got seven times more.
“It is imperative that the EIB revises its energy policy in line with climate science, as well as with EU 2050 climate objectives,” said Anna Roggenbuck, Bankwatch EIB co-ordinator. “The EIB should immediately stop lending to coal, the most carbon intensive type of energy generation, and develop and implement a plan to phase out lending to other fossil fuels and prioritise energy efficiency as the most important area of intervention.”
The EIB spokesman said: “Energy efficiency is the greenest form of energy there is. The EIB is continuously looking for good projects, both with industry and public bodies, ideally at a large scale.” He added: “The EIB adopted a new energy lending policy in 2007 which is based on the two priority areas of climate action and energy security. This new approach ensures a selective approach to coal and lignite fuelled power stations.”
He said the Duisberg-Walsum coal power plant in Germany and the Sostanj lignite power plant in Slovenia had been approved under the old guidelines and that none of the €820m pledged to the German project and the €550m pledged to the Slovenian project had yet been disbursed. He noted the approval was only valid for a certain period of time but was unable to elaborate further.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), part owned by the EIB, has also significantly increased its loans to fossil fuels, between 2006 and 2010. Gas loans rose 10-fold to €929m between 2006 and 2009, before falling back to €435m. Lending for renewables rose from just €5.5m in 2006 to €232m in 2010, but over the five year period, fossil fuels got 35% of the €7.7bn total while renewables got 6%. The biggest sector was energy efficiency, which was awarded 43% of the funds.
The EBRD was is the biggest investor in its area of operation, eastern Europe, the Balkans and central Asia. It was established to support “the development of market economies” following the widespread collapse of communist regimes. It is owned by 61 countries, the EU and the EIB.
Energy and climate change committee chair Tim Yeo tells of shock at decision to shift £1bn CCS funding to infrastructure budget
The head of an influential committee of MPs has expressed his shock at the decision to reallocate funds away from developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and demanded to know when the government envisages the technology being up and running.
Tim Yeo, chair of the energy and climate change committee, today issued an open letter to Chris Huhne after last week’s Autumn Statement siphoned off the £1bn earmarked for the UK’s first CCS demonstration programme to finance a new set of infrastructure projects.
The move took the industry by surprise and was criticised by the government’s own independent advisors after it threw into doubt the agreed timeline for having the first demonstration project completed by 2016 and three more operational by 2020.
CCS is one of the main pillars of the government’s energy policy and is expected to become a £10bn industry in the UK employing up to 27,000 people by 2025.
But to date, only one small pilot project has come online with many observers blaming the lack of progress on the lengthy time taken to award funding to the first demonstration project, which saw all applicants withdraw from the process, culminating in Scottish Power’s Longannet project in Fife dropping out of the competition in October.
The technology is thought to be well suited to the UK as it has access to geological formations in the North Sea capable of storing carbon emitted from factories and power plants on the east coast, as well as transferable skills from the oil and gas industry.
In his letter to the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Yeo warns that CCS is a vital technology for the low-carbon transition and without it the UK’s emissions targets may come under threat.
He calls on Huhne to urgently clarify exactly how much of the promised £1bn of CCS funding will be moved to the infrastructure budget, when he expects a commercial-scale project to be underway, and how the decision affects the next round of plants.
“There would be serious international and economic implications if we were not able to make this technology available,” Yeo writes. “Without it, we may face an impossible trade-off between our environmental objectives and energy security.
“We are extremely concerned that the Treasury’s short-term fixes will endanger our long-term economic and environmental prospects and these issues are not being given the weight they deserve in Whitehall.”
A Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesman insisted the government remained “fully committed” to cost-competitive deployment of CCS in the 2020s.
“We are clear that £1bn remains available to support future projects … and expect CCS projects to come forward in this spending review period,” he said in a statement. “The detailed profile of spend will be determined by the projects selected and when they require funding.”
Yeo’s letter comes after shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex quizzed Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, on the matter in Parliament yesterday.
Alexander said “£1bn is available for the carbon capture and storage project” and that the funds would be allocated “as soon as the competition is completed”.
Speaking afterwards Greatrex said the answer “failed to clear up the uncertainty” that is afflicting the industry over how much funding will be made available during this parliament.
“The government refuses to say how much money there will be before 2015, and won’t outline a revised timetable for CCS development on a commercial scale,” he added. “If businesses are to invest in the long term development of this vital low-carbon technology, they need clarity from the government not dither and delay.
“It is time Danny Alexander and Chris Huhne came clean, rather than persistently undermining the UK’s current commercial advantage on CCS technology.”