Monbiot on coal

George Monbiot has written about coal many a time. This time slightly differently, as he stands at the edge of, and describes in brilliant form, a burgeoning new open-cast mine out in Wales.

I recommend that you use his post for the references, rather than my shoddy efforts.

It looks as if we are about to re-enter the coal age. Though 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 of new coal-fired power stations planned to be built in the UK before 2020″(1).

The power companies are confident that the government will back them. Its Energy White Paper, published in May, 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”(2).

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 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.”(3) In a parliamentary debate in May, Alastair Darling, then in charge of energy, acknowledged that the technologies required for CCS “might never become available”(4). We could be stuck with a new generation of coal-burning power stations, approved on the basis of a promise which never materialises, which commit us to massive emissions for 40 years.

There is another policy buried in the white paper which is already being implemented. This is to “maximise economic recovery … from remaining coal reserves.”(5) In 2006, British planning authorities considered twelve applications for new opencast coal mines. They rejected two of them and approved ten.(6) They have done so, the story of Ffos-y-fran shows, with the active support of the government.

And of the town?

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. Though local people have fought the plan, their council, the Welsh government and the Westminster government have collaborated with the developers to force it through, using questionable methods. I have found evidence which suggests to me that a member of Tony Blair’s government used false information to seek to persuade the Welsh administration to approve the pit. But perhaps the most remarkable fact is this: that outside Merthyr Tydfil hardly anyone knows it is happening.

At first the people of Merthyr Tydfil could not understand why their representatives were siding with the developers. Merthyr has a long Labour tradition of social solidarity. While many people lament the passing of the deep mines, open-casting 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 and the Welsh assembly have all helped the mining company to fight the objectors.

There are 432 local authorities in the United Kingdom. Life expectancy in Merthyr comes 429th.(7) 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.(8) All these diseases are exacerbated by air pollution and stress. The pit will be dug into a steep hillside overhanging the town.

To put ‘overhanging the town’ into perspective, from the Ffos-y-fran Health Impact Assessment Steering Group:

Ffos aerial pic

Ffos map pic

The houses nearest to the mine are literally across the road.

The remainder of Monbiot’s article is well worth reading.


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