Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A dirty black hole

From Wales to Colombia, the scourge of opencast coal mining is being driven by our continued dependence on this dirtiest of fossil fuels, writes Kelvin Mason

August 13, 2013
7 min read

opencastOpencast mining at Ffos-y-Fran, near Merthyr Tydfil. Photo: Chris Austin

In October 2007, George Monbiot looked at a green hilltop in Merthyr Tydfil where a massive new opencast coal mine was planned and warned of ‘the new coal age’. ‘One thought kept clanging through my head,’ he wrote. ‘If this is allowed to happen, we might as well give up now.’

Covering 367 hectares, Ffos-y-fran was to be a huge mine, involving the excavation of 11 million tonnes of coal by 2025 and so responsible for at least 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Monbiot’s article was one spur for a campaign of direct action against the project, in which climate justice activists joined residents opposing the impact on the local environment. The campaign reached its peak in 2009 with a week-long climate action camp of around 500 people in Merthyr Tydfil.

Four years later, mining at Ffos-y-fran is in full swing. It is is just one of a number of new generation opencast coal mines planned for Wales. Over the formerly green hilltop from Ffos-y-fran, near the small town of Rhymney, the same Miller Argent consortium proposes another mine – in effect a further huge extension to the existing one, as residents see it. If Nant Llesg receives planning permission, it will mine up to nine million tonnes of coal, emitting more than 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burned.

Meeting demand

Developers such as Miller Argent claim they are merely meeting demand – and, in the case of Ffos-y-fran, reclaiming large areas of derelict land from earlier mining activity ‘at no cost to the public purse’. According to the International Energy Agency, some 41 per cent of world electricity generation is fuelled by coal. In the UK we still depend on coal for 30 per cent our of electricity production, rising to more than 40 per cent in winter periods of peak demand. In 2011, we burned 41.8 million tonnes of coal in power stations.

Driven by the domestic boom in shale gas production, US exports of cheap coal to Europe increased 23 per cent to more than 60 million tonnes in 2012. That same year, the percentage of UK electricity generated from coal rose to its highest since 1995. Meanwhile, the 2008 Climate Change Act binds the UK to at least an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions against a 1990 baseline by 2050, and 34 per cent by 2020.

In this context, coal is the worst-choice fuel, emitting around 910 grammes of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, per kilowatt hour of electricity generated compared to some 500 grammes for gas and zero for renewable sources such as wind. So, while the US burns cleaner gas, imports of its unwanted, dirty coal serve to impede the development of renewables in the UK. In the valleys of South Wales the UK government’s rhetorical commitment to mitigating climate change meets our greed for cheap energy head on, and the first casualty is the local community.

Exploitation and jobs

Historically, the area around Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was noted for its natural resources of iron ore, coal, limestone and water. During the industrial revolution this provided ideal conditions for the development of ironworks and associated industry, which contributed enormously to British economic and naval power, with much of the iron being used to build merchant vessels and warships. But most of the vast industrial wealth generated left the area along with the iron and the ironmasters. The people of the area did not benefit in proportion to the labour they provided, while their landscape was scarred and the local environment blighted.

Today, with higher unemployment, lower than average life expectancy and a greater incidence of illnesses, which limit people’s ability to live a full life and to work, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney are among the most deprived communities in Wales. Contrary to any romantic notion, coal remains part of the fabric of everyday life and culture not in song or poetry but as extensive spoil tips and the pneumoconiosis and emphysema suffered by ex-miners. If it continues as proposed, the current round of opencast coal mining will compound this situation.

In the current economic context, the issue of jobs tends to dominate the debate over existing and proposed coal mines. Opencast mining companies highlight job creation, while campaign groups argue that these jobs will be few, highly specialised and thus not open to local people. Established local businesses claim they will be forced to shed jobs as their marketing depends on the clean air, water and green landscapes of Wales. These days, these traditional mining areas strive to offer themselves as tourist attractions, boasting dramatic mountain scenery. No matter how the developers try to present it, opencast coal mining means dust, noise and a dirty black hole in the ground.

Global markets

Any jobs created are also highly vulnerable in the face of unregulated global markets. The current resurgence of opencast mining was spurred by rises in the price of imported coal in 2007 and 2008, before the market was inundated by cheap imports from the US. Despite the high cost of transportation, low prices favour the continued import of coal rather than investment in new opencast mines in the UK.

In April, Scottish Coal announced the closure of its six opencast mines in Scotland with the loss of 600 jobs. If a similar collapse affects companies in Wales, it will be a very mixed blessing. While communities will be spared the dust, noise and visual impacts of opencast mining, the jobs lost will have a significant effect on local economies. And the social and environmental injustices that Wales is spared will simply be exported to communities in places such as Indonesia, Australia, Russia, the US and Colombia.

In Colombia, for instance, the Cerrejón opencast mine, Latin America’s largest, has progressively swallowed whole villages previously occupied by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities since it was opened in 1976. Further destruction and environmental damage is threatened by a planned major extension of the mine, which is being fought by the local community.

Moreover, whether the UK continues to burn imported or domestic coal makes no difference to the scale of emissions of carbon dioxide. With mounting opposition to wind farm development and an uncertain future for nuclear power, the UK looks set to remain dependent on fossil fuels and thus miss its commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Community groups in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney may wish the government to make the change to zero-carbon energy sooner rather than later. But instead they are faced with the prospect of their local employment and economies becoming increasingly dependent on the dirtiest and most damaging of fossil fuels.

Alternative vision

Despite George Monbiot’s grim admonishment and the dire circumstances in which they find themselves, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney residents have not given up. By forming the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) and alliances with others, their struggle against Ffos-y-fran continues. UVAG has pledged to oppose Nant Llesg by all means at its disposal. In the meantime, local campaigners have successfully opposed plans for a ‘monster’ waste incinerator, joining with Friends of the Earth Cymru in researching an alternative vision whereby 3,000 jobs would be created through improvements in recycling and waste management, home energy efficiency and small-scale renewable energy development.

Coal is the extreme energy we are already dependent upon and that situation must change. What UVAG needs now is allies prepared to oppose coal mining and the exploitation of mining communities across the globe at every level: For a just future, we all need to say a resounding ‘No’ to old king coal and ‘Yes’ to energy conservation, public, co-operative and community-owned renewable energy developments, and green jobs.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


19