Fight over future of UK coal as last big mine shuts
The closure of England’s last major coal mine this week marked another step towards the end of one of Britain’s historic industries.
The Bradley mine, in County Durham, northeast England, ceased operations on Monday, after owner, the Banks Group, recently shuttered two other mines in the region, leaving 250 jobs in limbo.
Conservationists, including the Extinction Rebellion activist group, led months of pressure and protests to prevent the site being maintained until 2021 and welcomed the closure.
It leaves only Hartington, a small-scale mine in northern England near Sheffield, and several other smaller sites still operating across England.
Some mines remain in Wales and Scotland, according to Banks Group.
Bradley’s closure effectively marks the end of an industry which stretches back to Roman times and which had several dozen sites operational as recently as the early 2000s.
Faced with the climate emergency, Britain has opted to halt coal production for electricity entirely by 2025, with just a handful of power stations still using it.
Paul Ekins, environment policy professor at University College London, told AFP that thermal coal mines like Bradley “are shutting down because they are not economic any more”.
He pointed out that renewable sources of energy now account for almost 40 percent of UK power and their costs have fallen sharply in recent years.
Isobel Tarr, of environmental group Coal Action, said: “We are extremely close to seeing an end to coal for electricity in the UK, thanks to the hard work of grassroots campaigners, and that the phase-out plan is working to close power stations.”
However, she noted that “the phase-out does not apply to coal in industry or coal mining, so companies are seeking to switch to supplying steel and cement industries and explore exports of coal”.
– ‘Bold vision’ –
Several projects for new open-cast mines are being considered by the British government, such as Highthorn, which also belongs to Banks Group.
Environmentalists are again fighting the moves, with Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria in northwest England — dubbed the “UK’s first deep coal mine in 40 years” — attracting particular opposition.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives are widely blamed in former mining areas for destroying the industry.
Miners went on a bitter year-long strike in 1984 to prevent widespread pit closures. Margaret Thatcher’s government, who wanted to curb union powers, held out and forced through the plan.
The effects of job losses in former colliery towns and villages can still be seen even now, but Johnson won a huge majority in December last year, including in once-staunchly Labour-supporting northern industrial areas.
He vowed to “level up” regional inequality, but appears torn between commitments to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and stemming unemployment made worse by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Banks Group has criticised ministers for dragging their feet in approving new projects, arguing that importing coal for the UK’s steel and cement industries from places like Russia is worse for the environment due to the emissions from shipping.
But Ekins rejects that argument, noting carbon dioxide emissions from transporting coal are minimal.
For Tarr, Britain will only end its long relationship with coal when “a bold vision and pathway for switching to clean steel and cement production” is put forward and the government “prevent new mines from starting”.
“Without this, companies will keep pursuing coal mining and coal burning in industry,” she said.
Coal Action and other pressure groups like Green Alliance say it is possible to produce steel with much less coal, in particular by recycling steel, modernising production and adopting innovative techniques, such as utilising natural gas or hydrogen.