It’s the Pits
Bill Hartley laments the death of coal
Three energy related announcements were made in the closing weeks of 2015. In November the energy minister Amber Rudd MP announced that within ten years Britain would cease to generate electricity by burning coal. Rather patronisingly she added that we could hardly expect the Indians and Chinese to give up their evil coal burning habits if Britain continued to pollute. Nowhere in this announcement was there anything about energy security or how without coal to generate electricity, the government could be confident of keeping the lights on. So obvious a decision was this to the minister that no further comment seemed necessary. Evidently reassuring the electorate did not feature in her priorities. It puts one in mind of former Labour minister Elliot Morley and his eagerness to comply with the EU Habitats Directive which led to the abandonment of dredging in the Somerset Levels and the dreadful floods that followed. Balancing the benefits and burdens doesn’t often feature in pronouncements about energy supplies since we are expected to defer to the orthodoxy of ‘climate change’. It took a BBC correspondent to point out the obvious: for this to stand a chance of working, we the consumers will have to pay a lot more for our electricity.
Another announcement shortly afterwards which sadly received far less attention was the closure of Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, Britain’s last deep mine. With it will go 450 jobs and it was left to an official of the GMB union to point out that there are 30,000,000 tons of coal left in the mine. Even the Labour Party couldn’t be bothered to summon up a comment about the end of an era.
Greater coverage was of course given to the Climate Change Conference in Paris, where the world’s nations have agreed to limit temperature increases to 2º C. It may come as a surprise then to learn that India, one of the major players at the conference is set to triple coal production. This is because carbon generation in India is far less per head of population than say the United States. Hence India is allowed to raise its carbon output before taking steps to assist the rest of the world in lowering it. So great is the rush for coal on the sub continent that spontaneous combustion has been allowed to ignite surface deposits and burns unchecked. Coal burning itself you could say. Meanwhile our energy minister will valiantly battle on to ensure Britain’s handful of coal burning power stations give up their bad habit as an example. The United States with 600 coal burners presumably faces an even bigger challenge.
Like clean water or health provision one might assume that it is the duty of government to secure energy supplies for the population and that a certain degree of prudence would be necessary in order to do so. Domestic sources of energy would be the most reliable way of achieving this and ensuring that the lights stay on. The German government despite having signed up to the climate change agenda seems to grasp this. Following the accident at Fukushima the Germans decided to abandon nuclear power for electricity generation. Rather like our own government’s attitude towards coal this left them with a supply dilemma: be all Green and pretend Renewables can fill the gap or be realistic and ensure energy security. This has been achieved by relying on lignite, the dirtiest coal of all. In the Lausitz region south east of Berlin some of the worst Co2 emissions in the world are being produced by three power stations burning the soft brown coal. Phasing out nuclear means the Germans have become heavily dependant on coal.
I am writing this in the library of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, a body one of whose members taught the Germans how to access their coal reserves in the Ruhr (the grateful Germans named a pub after him). The institute moved to its present location in 1876 and contained within its library is the work of thousands of men who helped develop the industry. Until quite recently Great Britain led the world in deep mining technology and the library is the custodian of the accumulated technical knowledge. A glance at some of the more familiar titles sees this once great industry slowing to a halt. Copies of the Colliery Guardian for example peter out sometime in the 1990s. With the closure of Kellingley Colliery this reservoir of knowledge is now redundant in Britain. Those of us who work to maintain the library are in effect helping to catalogue and document a collection of what was until a few years ago a vibrant and still evolving technology. It is now being preserved for the historians of the future.
Coal is better able to meet fluctuations in demand, coal is easier to store and safer than oil or gas. In 2012 the country used 60m tonnes of which only 16m tonnes was produced domestically. Russia is our principal supplier and for those assessing environmental costs other supplies are shipped across the Atlantic from the US and Columbia. This despite the fact that UK coal reserves in 2011 were estimated to be 2,344, 000,000 tonnes underground with 852, 000,000 tonnes accessible from the surface; an incredible total when one considers how much was mined during the industrial revolution through to the miner’s strike of 1984. Our deep mines with all that technological heritage have been defeated by cheap imports and government indifference, rather in the same way as the Tees side steel works was in 2015. So in its attempt to retain the moral high ground government is letting the last vestiges of the British coal industry slip into history whilst claiming that gas will fill the gap. Some climate change fanatics are so blind to energy security that they would prefer this solution to be discarded too and the possibility of fracking brought to an end. Gas is known in the trade as a ‘bridge technology’. It produces half the amount of greenhouse gases as coal but to be consistent with limiting global warming to 2º C production would need to peak by 2050 and decline further in the second half of the century.
There is then the sense that gas whilst by no means the solution is seen as preferable to coal, without any real evaluation of which is the best intermediate fuel, even though massive reserves of the latter are on our doorstep and the technology exists to extract it. Choosing gas as the BBC correspondent pointed out, means that the customer without any say in the decision is going to have to bear the costs.
There are ways of making coal a cleaner safer technology, for example the use of carbon capture and storage and whilst there are British companies out there promoting and developing the use of this technology, one senses that they are receiving little more than polite interest from government. Effectively it would seem that the prevailing orthodoxy in official circles is that coal is bad and shouldn’t be used no matter how many improvements are made. This is the kind of logic that flies in the face of energy security and the supply of low cost electricity to consumers, neither of which seems to be a major consideration in the face of climate change propaganda. In effect policy first, people second, fuel poverty presumably being a concern for the people over at the Department of Social Security.
That said coal may not be quite finished yet. The North Sea is known to contain vast reserves, ignored when oil exploration was the priority. Now these are being reconsidered via a process called Underground Coal Gasification. It does have the advantage of being ‘out of sight out of mind’ and whilst predictably it invokes the wrath of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, this knee jerk response leaves them floundering in the wake of technology which whilst far from being new (it was first suggested by Sir William Siemens in 1868) is only now being subjected to 21st century expertise. ‘Frack Off’ who promote themselves as the ‘extreme energy action group’ have decided to branch out into demonising UCG too, describing it in one pronouncement as ‘the fires of hell’. Such is their hatred of coal that any attempt to utilise this fuel source is automatically seen as bad. Their publications on the subject bundle together unrelated issues and ignore any possibility that advances in technology can overcome the problems of the past. However if UGC works commercially it will be happening deep below the sea and therefore lacks the visible and emotional impact of fracking. It would certainly be ironic if coal did end up as the ‘Fuel of the Future’ as the old National Coal Board advertisements used to say.
William Hartley is a freelance writer from Yorkshire