The new coal age

Massimo A. Allamandola suburbanstudio at
Tue Oct 9 00:45:36 BST 2007

The new coal age

The government says it wants a low-carbon economy. Yet on a green 
hilltop in south Wales, despite huge opposition from locals, diggers 
have begun excavating what will be the largest opencast coal mine in 
Britain. Who let this happen? George Monbiot investigates

    * George Monbiot
    * The Guardian
    * Tuesday October 9 2007

As I watched the machine scraping away the first buckets of soil, one 
thought kept clanging through my head: "If this is allowed to happen, we 
might as well give up now." It didn't look like much: just a yellow 
digger and a couple of trucks taking the earth away. But in a secure 
compound behind me were the heaviest beasts I have ever seen - 1,300 
horsepower or more - lined up and ready to start digging one of the 
largest opencast coal mines in Europe. In Romania perhaps? The Czech 
Republic? No, on a hilltop in south Wales.

The diggers at Ffos-y-fran, on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, are set 
to excavate 1,000 acres of land to a depth of 600ft. There has never 
been a hole quite like it in Britain, and our government's climate 
change policies are about to fall into it.

Everything about this scheme is odd. The edge of the site is just 36 
metres from the nearest homes, yet there will be no compensation for the 
owners, and their concerns have been dismissed by the authorities. 
Though local people have fought the plan, their council, the Welsh 
government and the Westminster government have collaborated with the 
developers to force it through, using questionable methods. I have found 
evidence that suggests to me that a member of Tony Blair's government 
used false or outdated information to seek to persuade the Welsh 
administration to approve the pit. But perhaps the most remarkable fact 
is this: outside Merthyr Tydfil, hardly anyone knows it is happening.

It looks as if we are about to re-enter the coal age. Though the 
electricity companies spend millions telling us about their investments 
in renewable energy, at least four of them - E.On, RWE npower, 
ScottishPower and Scottish and Southern - are developing plans for new 
coal-burning generators, which produce roughly twice the carbon 
emissions of gas burners. According to one government document, there 
are "£20 billion [worth of] of new coal-fired power stations planned to 
be built in the UK before 2020".

The power companies are confident that the government will back them. 
Its energy white paper, published in May, begins by explaining the need 
to develop a low-carbon economy. But buried on page 112 is a commitment 
to "secure the long-term future of coal-fired power generation".

This is justified by the prospect that, one day, carbon emissions might 
be captured and buried in geological formations: a process known as 
carbon capture and storage, or CCS. But while the government has asked 
companies to build a demonstration plant by 2014, there are no firm 
plans for any commercial venture. The energy white paper admits that 
"CCS would not be commercially viable unless costs fell substantially 
... or unless the carbon price rose sufficiently to provide a larger 
financial incentive". In a parliamentary debate in May, Alastair 
Darling, then in charge of energy, acknowledged that the technologies 
required for CCS "might never become available". We could be stuck with 
a new generation of coal-burning power stations, approved on the basis 
of a promise that never materialises, which commit us to massive 
emissions for 40 years.

There is another policy buried in the white paper that is already being 
implemented. This is to "maximise economic recovery ... from remaining 
coal reserves". In 2006, British planning authorities considered 12 
applications for new opencast coal mines. They rejected two of them and 
approved 10. They have done so, the story of Ffos-y-fran shows, with the 
active support of the government.

At first, the people of Merthyr Tydfil could not understand why their 
representatives were siding with the developers. Merthyr has a long 
Labour tradition of social solidarity. While many people lament the 
passing of the deep mines, opencasting is unpopular. Petitions 
circulated by the local protest group raised 10,000 signatures. But the 
council (which is dominated by the Labour party), the Labour assembly 
member for the area and the Welsh assembly have all helped the mining 
company to fight the objectors. The answer, it now seems, according to 
evidence the campaigners have unearthed, is that the Westminster 
government leaned on the Welsh assembly to force the project through. 
The assembly in turn might have leaned on the local council.

One thing they are sure of is that it won't do the health of the local 
people any good. There are 432 local authorities in the United Kingdom. 
Merthyr is 429th in the life-expectancy table. As a result of the legacy 
of heavy industry, smoking and bad diet, it has Wales's highest rates of 
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, strokes and certain heart 
conditions. All these diseases are exacerbated by air pollution and 
stress. The pit will be dug into a steep hillside overhanging the town.

To reach the 10.8 million tonnes of coal they are hoping to extract, the 
developers must remove 123 million cubic metres of rock. The digging and 
infilling will last for 17 years, with explosives used to loosen the 
rock and machines working from 7am until 11pm, generating smoke and 
dust. While the World Health Organisation identifies 57 decibels as 
causing "serious annoyance", the planning conditions set maximum noise 
levels at 70 decibels. When local people say that the scheme will ruin 
their lives, I do not believe they are exaggerating.

But they are not the only ones who will be affected. A tonne of coal 
contains 746kg of carbon: burning it produces 2.7 tonnes of carbon 
dioxide. This means that the coal in Ffos-y-fran will be responsible for 
almost 30 million tonnes of CO2: equivalent to the annual sustainable 
emissions of 25 million people (sustainable emissions are the quantity 
the planet's living systems can absorb). The only certain means of 
preventing climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground: when 
they are dug up, they will be used. This point has been ignored by the 
government. It has concentrated all its efforts on reducing the demand 
for fossil fuels, but has done nothing to reduce supply. It still 
subsidises exploration for oil and gas and it has been pouring state 
money into the coal industry.

Miller Argent, the consortium digging the pit, calls Ffos-y-fran a "land 
reclamation scheme". It will "reclaim circa 1,000 acres of acutely 
derelict, unsafe, unproductive and unsightly land". By digging out the 
coal, the company says, it can restore the land without the need for 
public money. The scheme will also provide "direct employment for over 
200 people" and "generate tens of millions of pounds for the local 
economy and to the benefit of the local community".

There is no doubt that some of the land in the scheme, comprising old 
workings and spoil heaps, is unsafe. But local people claim that only a 
small part of the site is acutely derelict. As I saw for myself, much of 
it consists of moorland and rough pasture, on which sheep graze and the 
people of Merthyr walk and picnic. "Reclamation would be sensible on 
some of the worst features," one of the objectors, Leon Stanfield, told 
me. "But you don't go down 600ft and blast five days a week to reclaim 
an area." Today, he says, most opencast coal mines are promoted as 
reclamation schemes in order to try to win public approval. He 
calculates that reclamation without coal mining at Ffos-y-fran would 
take just three years. Because Merthyr Tydfil qualifies for European 
Objective One funding, the clean-up could be sponsored by the European 

The protesters maintain that few of the promised benefits will come to 
the town. The workers who operate the vast machinery used in opencasting 
are specialists who tend to move from mine to mine. The pit, local 
people believe, will blight the area, discouraging businesses from 
moving there and driving away tourists. One of the campaigners, Terry 
Evans, took me on to the hill and pointed down to his bungalow - on the 
other side of the road, 36 metres away.

As far as I can discover, no other opencasting scheme in recent times 
comes this close to people's homes. In Scotland, planning rules require 
a buffer zone of at least 500m. But the people of Merthyr, through an 
extraordinary omission, have been left without the usual protections: 
after 12 years of delays, there is still no planning guidance for coal 
workings in Wales.

In 1997, the Welsh Office planned to publish a technical advice note, 
laying down the conditions new mines would have to meet. Nothing 
happened until the Welsh Assembly government was formed. It promised to 
publish the guidance in 2005, but the note is still only at the draft 
stage. The delay has been convenient for the developers: had the note 
been published, obtaining planning permission for schemes such as 
Ffos-y-fran would have been more difficult.

The draft proposes a separation zone of 350 metres between opencast 
workings and the nearest homes. It also insists that a health impact 
assessment is published. Researchers at Cardiff University twice offered 
to conduct an assessment of the Ffos-y-fran scheme, but the council 
turned them down on the grounds that "there was no statutory 
requirement". "We have been denied the protections the technical advice 
note would have given us," Leon Stanfield told me. "No decision should 
have been made until it was published." He suspects the note has been 
deliberately delayed in order to push through Ffos-y-fran and other 
schemes. When I approached the Welsh government, its spokesperson denied 
this. She maintained that the assembly is awaiting the results of 
"further research to look at the close geographical relationship between 
coal resources in Wales and Welsh communities".

This was not the only issue the objectors found odd. The borough council 
offered an extraordinary deal to the mining company, Miller Argent. It 
would allow the company to recoup the costs of making its case at the 
public inquiry - £800,000 - out of the royalties that it would pay the 
council for the coal. The people of Merthyr, in effect, paid the 
developers' barristers to argue against them. There was no such support 
for the objectors: they had to fund their case at the inquiry, which 
ended in 2004, out of their own pockets. They lost, and the digging 
began a few weeks ago.

Local people began to suspect that Miller Argent had friends in high 
places, so they made a freedom of information request. The results 
astonished them. First they received a letter sent in January 2004 by 
Stephen Timms, then minister for energy in the Westminster government, 
to the first minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. "My officials," Timms 
revealed, "have had regular contact with Miller Argent." He wanted the 
company's application "resolved with the minimum of further delay". 
Among the advantages he listed was that the mine would help to keep the 
Aberthaw power station in Barry in business: if it knew it had secure 
supplies from Ffos-y-fran, the power firm would fit sulphur scrubbers to 
comply with European rules, which would allow the plant to stay open for 
longer. This, in turn, would "assure the future" of the Welsh 
opencasting industry.

The letter is extraordinary in three respects. First, that a minister in 
a department responsible for cutting carbon emissions (the department 
for trade and industry) should be supporting an opencast coal-mining 
scheme on behalf of its developer. Second, that he should be seeking to 
extend the life of one of the most inefficient coal-burning plants in 
the UK (Aberthaw has been operating since 1971). Third, that Aberthaw 
uses coal from many sources (50% of it is imported) and it is hard to 
see why its survival should be dependent on Ffos-y-fran.

But this was not the end of the lobbying. In December 2004, Timms' 
successor, Mike O'Brien, sent Morgan a second letter. He repeated the 
pleas Timms made on behalf of Miller Argent. He also used a new 
argument. Without the Ffos-y-fran scheme, Aberthaw might not be able to 
stay open, because its ability to bring in coal from abroad is 
"constrained by port and railway capacity limits".

A few days after I read that letter, I found a document published by 
O'Brien's department earlier in the same year. It contained the 
following statement: "Problems were experienced in the year 2000 when 
demand for imported coal increased substantially ... This has been 
largely overcome by investment in new rolling stock and some upgrading 
of rail links ... there appears to be sufficient capacity." As for port 
constraints that might prevent imports of coal, the document reveals 
that "there is a surplus of capacity on the west coast" - which includes 
Wales. It seems to me that O'Brien has used false information to seek to 
persuade Rhodri Morgan to approve the scheme. When I challenged him, a 
government spokesman was deputed to tell me that "the letter referred to 
information that we had at the time. There is no question of Mike 
O'Brien misleading the minister".

This is not the only support the government has given to coal mining. 
Between 2000 and 2002 it gave Britain's coal producers £162m in 
subsidies, much of which went into big opencast mines. In 2003 and 2004 
it gave the industry a further £58.5m.

In late 2006, Blair's government established a body called the Coal 
Forum, composed of coal producers, electricity companies and government 
ministers and officials, whose purpose was to lobby for the future of 
coal. The opencast companies used the forum to rail against the planning 
laws that allow local people to hold up their schemes and to demand a 
faster approval process. They asked for a government statement 
explaining the benefits of a diversity of energy sources, in order to 
prevent climate policies from favouring gas. They hoped that this would 
appear in the energy white paper. They have received everything they 
wanted. We know that the Labour party has a long-standing relationship 
with coal miners and their unions. But while New Labour has maintained 
its support for the industry, its allegiance appears to have switched 
from the workers to the bosses.

To see what will come to Merthyr Tydfil, I visited the Selar opencast 
scheme in the Neath Valley. It is not quite as big as Ffos-y-fran, but 
it is hard to convey the size of the hole. From the edge of the pit the 
monster trucks on the other side were reduced to yellow specks. Despite 
this breadth, I could not see the bottom. The roads zigzagged down the 
grey slopes for hundreds of feet until they disappeared beneath the 
cliff on which I stood. Even from the top of Mynydd Pen-Y-Cae, 1,500ft 
above the edge of the hole, the mine dominated the view. I camped on the 
mountain and watched the lights moving up and down the pit long after 
dark. When you think of the fuss people make about a few wind turbines, 
the neglect of this issue seems incomprehensible.

I hope that this will change. I hope that a new mobilisation, supporting 
the people of Merthyr Tydfil and other blighted communities, will stop 
the government from dragging us back into the coal age.

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