Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hatfield Coal Back on-Stream!

Coal mining, the treatment of coal miners by mine-owners and by various governments, and their attendant social strife feature among the saddest and most shameful periods of British industrial history. The "Custer's Last Stand" made by Arthur Scargill, leader of the Miners' Union, in 1984, in opposition to the government's plans to close many mines on grounds of uncompetitiveness, seemed to seal the death knell of much of the coal industry and the power of the trade unions. Scargill's main problem was that most of the country's miners did not support the strike, and as a consequence a siege situation resulted, with the Yorkshire miners firmly entrenched since the country did not depend on the output of coal from there.

Led by Margaret Thatcher, her government were determined that the miners would not bring them down, as had happened to a previous Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and his government in the previous decade, which was fraught with industrial action, the most infamous being the "wildcat strikes", where a union would pull all its members from their jobs "in sympathy" with another completely unrelated trade union. Heath was forced to put the country on a "three day week" by the miners, since the provision of energy, based on coal, was insufficient to keep the factories etc. running over the full week, which then was about 40 working hours for most workers.

The whole sorry business came to a head in the so called "winter of discontent" when dead bodies went unburied and rubbish was piling-up in the streets. Having lost all faith in the "Labour Party", the electorate swept the Conservative Thatcher government to power in the 1979 election, which went on to smash the trade unions, devolving them of their power by destroying much of the UK's manufacturing industry, of which there is merely a vestige remaining. By the late '70's UK manufacturing had become very uncompetitive with the cost of imports from the Far East, with far high productivity and staggeringly cheaper labour costs.

In the public imagination, the British coal industry has been consigned to the realm of history, especially as much was made of the sealing-up of formerly working mines, which were closed anyway, despite Mr Scargill's efforts, with concrete, in an act sounding of spite as much as an iron hand closing the dark side of trade union history. Don't get me wrong, without the trade unions and their members and founders who put their own security - and that of their families - on the line (e.g. the Tolpuddle Martyrs" who were transported for life to Australia), our contemporary comfortable lifestyles in this country would not have come about. The 1910 Tonypandy marchers in South Wales (where I am from originally) are also significant in their struggle for fair conditions and pay from the mine-owners, as is the fact that during the general strike in 1926, Winston Churchill sent the army in against the miners, many of whom had fought for their country during "The Great War", in addition to digging out her coal for her! It is just that the cause was hijacked somewhere along the way, culminating in the absurd 1970's situation, almost it seems as a device to destroy the nation's economy.

Against this backdrop, however, the UK still produces around 20 million tonnes of coal annually. As of the last 18 months, the proportion of electricity generated using coal has risen from one third to one half of the total. We also import another 40 million tonnes of coal, mostly from Germany. The industry is experiencing something of a renaissance, and I wrote recently about the re-opening of the mine at Cwmgwrach (pronounced, "Coom-rack"... close, anyway!) which is thought will yield about one million tonnes of coal. True, this is a drop in the bucket, but the UK is thought to be sitting on 1.5 billion tonnes of coal, which are accessible within existing holdings (i.e. you could just keep digging to get at it), and around 190 billion tonnes altogether, but most of that would need a completely new network of mines dug to get at it; a considerable undertaking. Assuming an average seam depth of 2 metres, that amount of coal would lie under around one third of the entire UK land area. Quite a lot of it is actually under the North Sea, but the comparison lends some element of scale to the enterprise.

Coal production at the Hatfield Colliery (in Yorkshire) formally ceased in 1994 (ten years after the "Last" miners' strike, from which many miners and their families are still in debt); however, after 13 years it is one again producing coal. An investment of £100 million ($190 million US) has been made in the colliery and there are plans to build a "clean" coal-fired power plant at a cost of £1 billion (about typical for a new power plant, which are reckoned at about $1,500 per kilowatt of generating capacity, and are typically of 1 Gigawatt output). Much of the investment has been secured by the colliery owner, Sir Richard Budge (I hadn't realised that he had been awarded a knighthood, but that sometimes happens for captains of British Industry - if the government are particularly appreciative of their efforts - so congratulations to him!), from Russian investors into his company, which is called "Powerfuel". There are Russian investors in football clubs over here now, so why not in a colliery?

Locating the new coal has been difficult, and there were many doubters even among the miners at the coal-face themselves, who had to tunnel through yards of stone before striking coal. There are bad memories in Hatfield about the 1984 strike, and it is said that "police" were waving their pay-packets (there was plenty of overtime to be had during the darkest days of the strike) at the striking miners who they knew were very short of money. Hatfield was the only mine that was left open (not sealed with concrete), presumably in the insurance that we might need coal again one day, once gas prices had risen again. The perceived "uncompetitiveness" of coal was not only against the cost of cheap coal that could be imported from other countries but also against the cost of using cheap natural gas to fire power stations. This is also why the UK's CO2 emission figures look good around the first part of the 1980's, because less CO2 is produced per unit of energy from burning methane than coal. However, with rising gas prices, and the fall in the output from our own North Sea fields, coal is once more a viable option.

I have no doubt that we will see a rapid upsurge in the getting and use of coal during the next decade and beyond, as the impending shortfall in other fossil fuels, oil and gas hits. I suspect the latter forms will be manufactured to some extent from coal, which is a well tested technology although to do it on any significant scale will also need a brave new generation of power and coal gasification/liquefaction plants to be created.

Related Reading. Story: "Black Gold", by Lucy Thornton.

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