Does the UK’s Coal Mining Industry Still Have a Future?

coal

L’histoire du Royaume-Uni est profondément liée au charbon, moteur de la première révolution industrielle. Après avoir connu son pic de production lors de la seconde guerre mondiale, l’extraction de charbon n’a cessé de chuter, suite aux fermetures successives de mines, en particulier sous le gouvernement de Margaret Thatcher. Aujourd’hui, le charbon représente une part importante de l’énergie britannique, et bien que l’essentiel du charbon utilisé par les centrales thermiques soit importé de l’étranger, le pays exploite encore 8 mines de charbon. Cette évolution semble être à l’avantage d’autres modes de production énergétiques. 

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The history of the coal industry is intertwined with that of the first industrial revolution. But since WWI, it has been on a steady decline. Indeed, when the sector was nationalized by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1947, the production decreased. While two million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1979 and 1981, the Thatcher government announced in 1984 its intention to close 20 coal mines, which provoked the terrible, and now famous,1984 strike led and organized by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), one of the largest labour unions in Britain. The struggle was violent and ended on the 3rd of March 1985 with a complete defeat for the miners whose ranks were thus depleted. Then, the industry was once again privatized in 1994 by the firm called UK Coal. Today, what could be regarded as a new page is about to be turned because the UK’s last coal mines could be closed in “five to six year”, according to NUM Secretary Chris Kitchen. It would put a historic end to more than 200 years of intense coal mining, the cradle of the industrial revolution.

Today, UK Coal runs only 8 mines, the industry employs about 6,000 miners in the UK, and accounts for 40% of the UK’s energy mix (whereas there were 1,000 pits employing 750,000 miners pints in the middle of the last century). The coal mining industry is worth over £1 billion and produces 19m tonnes of coal per year. Last winter, almost half of the UK’s electricity was generated by coal. And according to the Kitchen, the main reason why coal mining should not be stopped is because it gives the “stability of not relying on imports.” Indeed, over three quarters of the nation’s requirement are imported.

But according to Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party: “Coal extraction is a dirty business in terms of health impacts, social impacts and environmental impacts – it’s not a benign industry in any way. We need to be reducing our reliance on coal now, and looking at alternatives wherever possible.” 

In fact, coal production has risen sharply (about 10%) in the past few years. Indeed, dozens of opencast coal mines got the green light by local councils across the UK. And it tends to contradict Britain’s commitments about cutting CO2 emissions by 34% in the next decade. 

And mining is now at a crucial turning point, as the idea of developing “clean coal” by exploiting carbon capture and storage gained momentum. The process, known as “carbon capture & storage” (CCS) consists in capturing waste carbon dioxide and transport it to a storage site where it would not enter the atmosphere (for instance, under the seabed). But progress on developing the technology has so far appeared to come to a standstill. 

Britain’s current energy mix is evolving

Indeed, the United Kingdom wants to be less polluting and consume less coal. In 2011, the government presented its new energy strategy which aimed at using less coal and developing greener energies such as nuclear and wind. The UK has sixteen nuclear reactors which represent 20% of its energy, but these need to be renewed, which is why in 2010, the British government decided to construct eight more nuclear power stations before 2025 and in November 2013, gave the French company EDF the role to build two nuclear reactors in Hinkley Point. Moreover, the UK is developing wind power in the North Sea: the UK  now has the largest offshore wind farm with 175 turbines and is the first offshore wind producer but wants to boost this sector by 2025. The onshore wind production has increased rapidly too. Thus, the part of wind in the energy mix increased by 25% between 2011 and 2012.

Matthieu BELLEAU & Philippe-Amaury GUSSE

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