The UK’s new coal age

On a green hilltop in Wales -- despite huge opposition from local people -- diggers have begun excavating what will be the largest opencast coal mine in Britain. Why is this happening? George Monbiot investigates.

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, in Britain, 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 [nearly 405 hectares] of land to a depth of 600 feet [nearly 183 metres]. 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. Although local people have fought the plan, their council, the Welsh government and the national government at Westminster have collaborated with the developers to force it through, using questionable methods. I have found evidence that suggests to me that a member of former prime minister Tony Blair’s government used false or outdated information to seek to persuade the Welsh administration to approve the pit.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. Although 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 [nearly $41 billion] 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, or authoritative report, published in May 2007, 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 UK 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 (and now chancellor of the exchequer), 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 already is 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 Party 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 government 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 746 kilogrammes 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 [UK] pounds [sterling] 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 600 feet 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 Union.

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 500 metres. 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 of the time planned to publish a technical advice note, laying down the conditions that new mines would have to meet. Nothing happened until the Welsh Assembly government was formed in 1999. 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 local council turned them down on the ground 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 delayed deliberately 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 [$1.6 million] — 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 several weeks ago.

Local people began to suspect that Miller Argent had friends in high places, so they made a request under the UK’s freedom of information act. 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 near the town of Barry in business: if it knew it had secure supplies from Ffos-y-fran, the power company 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 (then called 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’s successor, Mike O’Brien, sent Morgan a second letter. He repeated the pleas that 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” [of Britain] — which includes Wales. It seems to me that O’Brien has used false information to seek to persuade 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. From 2000 to 2002 it gave Britain’s coal producers £162 million [$330 million in current figures] in subsidies, much of which went into big opencast mines. In 2003 and 2004 it gave the industry a further £58.5 million [about $120 million in current figures].

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 Blair-inspired 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 of southern Wales. 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 until they disappeared beneath the cliff on which I stood. Even from the top of Mynydd Pen-Y-Cae, 1,500 feet [more than 450 metres] 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.


George Monbiot is a best-selling author and environmental journalist. He is currently visiting professor of planning at Oxford Brookes University. In 1995 Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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