Tuesday, 12 August 2014

British coal has key role to play in energy mix

The miner’s strike of 1984/5 is considered a landmark for the Labour movement, collective action taking on the individualistic neo-liberal economics of Thatcherism. The battle saw collective community resistance at its strongest yet in the final analysis the miners lost, returning to work after a year of struggle - with heads held high.

“Everyone knew this wasn’t about buying coal, it was about destroying communities , destroying collectivism. In those communities the strong supported the weak,” said Ian Lavery, former NUM president and now Labour Mp for Wansbeck and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, who regards the strike as symbolic of Thatcher’s attack on trade unionism generally.

The government had made clear it was going to take on the trade unions from the moment it got into office, deploying a three pronged attack that involved using the law, the Murdoch dominated media and the scourge of unemployment.

The Thatcher government learnt the lessons of the earlier 1974 dispute, when the miners defeated Edward Heath’s administration, the final victory coming when the electorate kicked the Tories out on the question of who runs the country.

Thatcher’s Conservatives had prepared for the strike, stock piling coal at the power stations, making sure coal could be brought from overseas and substituting oil for coal at the power stations.

The government also turned the police into a quasi-military force, with virtual blanket immunity for their misdemeanors. “Some 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike but there were no criminal charges or disciplinary actions taken against the police. Policemen have since admitted committing grievous bodily harm in the strike,” said John Alderson, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall.

The government, via its henchman at the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, lied to the miners and the country, declaring that only 20 pits would close, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. NUM general secretary Arthur Scargill claimed the true figure was 70 pits, with 68,000 jobs going. Earlier this year, Arthur was proved right when the government  papers for the time proved that the plan had been to close 70 pits all along. The papers also revealed that the government had contemplated bringing the troops into break the strike.

Today, there are just three deep mine pits operating with two of these due to close shortly. The Tory government  reeked a terrible revenge on the mining communities. The work disappeared and there was little effort made to replace it. There are people in the mining communities that have never worked again. Drug and alcoholism levels have gone up in many areas due to the devastation caused. The human legacy has been well documented, however, less well known is the resultant damage caused to Britain’s energy security.

The NUM nicely summarises the situation. “ Most of the nation's collieries have been closed, we are now at the mercy of foreign importers and gas and oil prices are rocketing. Our own gas and reserves have been depleted at an alarming rate as we have squandered them in massive quantities in gas-fired power stations when we could have used coal. At the same time access to the indigenous coal reserves is severely restricted by the closure of coal mines. At the same time we have been squandering the talents of our skilled workforce by making them redundant,” said a spokesperson for the NUM.

In its desire to smash the miners and mining industry generally the Conservative government has created an insecure energy situation, where Britain remains dependent on coal for 40% of the fuel to service power stations but over 90% of this comes from overseas. Some 38% of the coal supplied to the UK comes from Russia. “How unstable is that, relying heavily on Russian coal to keep the lights on in this country,” said Ian Lavery.


Yet instead of look to reignite the mining industry in the country, the Coalition government chooses instead to plunge toward shale gas exploration and the nuclear option.


The obduracy of government in this area is illustrated by the fact that it is prepared to subsidise new nuclear sources of energy like EDF’s Hinckley power station project to the tune of guaranteeing twice the standard electricity price.


Britain now produces around 15 million tonnes of coal a year and employs fewer than 6,000 miners.


Last year, the British Geological Survey estimated that over 17 billion tonnes of coal remain in British coalfields, enough to provide power for 300 years.

Ian Lavery believes that the resurrection of the coal industry in the UK should provide a large part of any future plan for energy provision. He believes there should be between 10 and 15 mega pits created with carbon capture and storage technology fitted. “If carbon capture and storage technology is fitted there is near zero emissions,” said Ian, who believes the CCS technology would satisfy any environmental concerns of reviving coal. The UK is statutory bound to reduce its greenhouse gas  emissions by 80% by 2050.

The TUC together with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association recently published a report showing how the technology could create thousands of jobs across Yorkshire, the Humber and the Tees Valley. It is estimated the technology if developed could  create 6,000 jobs across Yorkshire – adding £245m to the regional economy. The long-term economic benefits to the region could be as high as £26bn by 2050. .

The research also found that the development could reduce wholesale electricity prices by 15 per cent compared to the cost of decarbonising the economy without CCS – leading to an average cut in household bills of £82 a year.

There have been some encouraging signs on this front recently with the government investing £100 million in the CCS White Rose project at the largest coal fired Drax power station and in Peterhead, with the EU providing a further £200 million.

Ian contrasts the government’s attitude to the coal industry with it’s gung ho attitude to shale gas. This approach sees planning laws being relaxed to allow private companies to frack on people’s land without permission. Shale gas though is a fossil fuel, so pursuit of its exploration as opposed to coal with CCS will not cut emission levels to the statutory required levels.

Ian argues that coal offers the perfect solution. He does though insist that a reborn coal industry would have to operate under public ownership because only such an arrangement could provide the investment levels necessary to develop the mega-pits. “If coal got the same subsidy as renewables and shale gas, the deep mine industry would be easily viable,” said Ian, who believes the answer to the UK’s energy needs should be a combination of home produced coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewables. Coal could provide 35 to 40% in this mix. “The plan could bring jobs, skilled apprenticeships and security of energy supply,” said Ian.

The mega-pit  plan could lead to the employment of 40,000 to 50,000 people and secure the energy needs of the country.

 “The Government should act now and ensure that an indigenous coal industry is retained otherwise we will continue to have to import coal in larger quantities at a price determined outside any control of the Government,” said and NUM spokesperson.

There will though have to be a change in the political climate if the domestic coal industry is to be revived under public ownership. The industry is still regarded as a political football, despite all the economic, security and environmental indicators pointing in its favour

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