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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.

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