Energy plan offers role for coaladmin
In Durham City last weekend, about 50,000 people lined the streets for the traditional Miners’ Gala – the 122nd in its history.
The event, which began as a memorial to miners who died working in the pits, used to attract crowd of over 300,000 in the 1950s and 1960s.
Since then, as in other former coal industry heartlands, its relevance to many local people has drifted.
Indeed, the star attraction of this year’s gala was not Arthur Scargill or another trenchant union leader, but X-Factor duo Journey South.
But while there is no prospect of it even coming close to its former importance in areas such as the North-East, the government’s energy review suggests there could still a role for coal – even coal mined in the UK, as part of the nation’s long-term energy policy.
Soaring oil and gas prices have helped fuel a revival of interest in coal, which currently provides about a third of all electricity generated in the UK.
So, too, has growing confidence in so-called clean coal technology, which would allow coal-burning power stations to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide, allowing them to meet environmental legislation.
But even if the technology is achieved, what remains to be seen is how much of that coal will be mined in the UK.
British coal production climbed 8.2% in the first quarter of 2006, according to Department of Trade and Industry figures, and the industry estimates there remains some “hundreds of millions of tonnes” of coal accessible in the UK, which at current rates of excavation would last up to 30 years.
At least another 100 million tonnes lies nearer the surface and could be obtained through opencast mining – if planning permission were given, says UK Coal, the country’s biggest producer.
But cheaper imports have seen British-produced coal losing ground in the domestic and world markets, with the annual output of 21 million tones being at around half 1995 levels.
At its peak, the UK had around 180 pits, but now only six mines remain open, employing abound 3,000 staff and an estimated 10,000 in related services and unions are sceptical that there is a commitment to breathing new life into the UK’s coal industry.
UK Coal says that producers would have to be able to get a high enough price to be able to invest in excavating coal.
“We’re confident that coal has a significant role to play in proving energy in the UK and that indigenous coal has a part in that,” says spokesman Stuart Oliver.
“There’s a vast potential in the capturing of greenhouse gases. They have a price tag attached, but then so do other forms of energy. The talk of cleaner coal has to be translated into action.”
Scottish and Southern Energy is one firm set to develop a cleaner coal plant for its Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire.
The technology captures carbon dioxide which can then be turned into liquid and stored underground in places such as depleted oil and gas fields.
Even environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, which champion renewable energy in the form of wind and wave turbines, have conceded that carbon storage has its plus points, even if it is only to “buy time” until greener methods are put in place.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) made a 33-page submission to the government’s energy review, calling on the UK’s coal resources to be used.
“We believe the government will invest in clean coal,” said NUM secretary Steve Kemp.” The big question is whether it is going to continue to be imported.”
The union, which now has just 2,000 members compared with 183,000 at the time of the Miners Strike in 1984-85, says extensive training would be needed to allow younger people to learn what has become a dying trade.
“We accept it is never going to be the industry it once was,” Mr Kemp says.
“But there is a strong case for the British coal industry to survive and expand.”