Should Wales shut its last remaining coal mines?

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Wales is digging serious amounts of coal despite the climate emergency declared by the Welsh Government.

With COP26 underway there is a huge focus on the unfolding climate disaster we are all living through. The burning of fossil fuels by humans is warming out planet at a deadly rate which is already having a direct and visible impact on your planet. Coal is the most dangerous of all the fossil fuels, producing more carbon emissions that natural gas or oil. It also causes the most deaths from accidents and air pollution.

  • Coal: 820 tonnes of CO2 (per gigawatt hour of electricity)
  • Oil: 720 tonnes of C02
  • Natural Gas: 490 tonnes of C02
  • Biomass: 78-230 tonnes of C02

Deaths from air pollutions and accidents

  • Coal: 26.4 (deaths per terawatt hour of energy)
  • Oil: 18.4
  • Biomass: 4.6
  • Natural Gas: 2.8

Figures from Our World In Data

The Welsh Government has been vocal in its determination to tackle the issue. After May’s Senedd election they created the role of Climate minister and put a great deal of powers in that brief, including decisions on future road building. The new minister Julie James has already made the ambitious aim that there will be no gas boilers in Wales by 2030.

But there is a very serious issue with these visions of Wales becoming beacon of climate friendly polices and green energy. The issue comes down to coal and steel.

Taking coal first, despite these grand plans, coal is still being mined from Welsh soil. Despite the fact we know that it is the very extraction of these fossil fuels that is driving the current mess, the coal from under our feet is still bring removed.

Where is coal still being extracted in Wales.?

Of of these places is Aberpergwm colliery, near Glynneath and there is is another in the Ffos-y-fran open cast mine in the north east of Merthyr Tydfil.

Why are we still mining coal in Wales?

The Welsh Government says it doesn’t want this to be happening.

Speaking in the Senedd last week deputy climate change minister Lee Waters accused the UK Government of hypocrisy over allowing the continued production of coal.

He said: “We’ve heard, at the COP in Glasgow, the Prime Minister saying that the UN needs to move away from coal, but that is the opposite of what the UK Government is doing. It’s the current policy of the Government that the Coal Authority has a duty to support the continued extraction of fossil fuels. That is not what we want to do in Wales; we have a very clear policy of stopping using fossil fuels.”

He added that the Welsh Government had requested the UK Government cancel the license for the extraction of the coal and said that if they failed to act by 2039 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would have been released because of the mine.

“Unless the UK Government agree to our request to cancel a licence granted in 1996 at Aberpergwm, some 40 million tonnes of coal will be extracted from this mine by 2039—100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide,” he said. “We want to keep this coal in the ground, but the UK Government, because of the powers in place, threaten to sit by and watch this coal being extracted in the face of our wishes. Now, the Coal Authority have told us they are minded to agree to our request—to deconditionalise this licence. We have written to the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy to intervene.”

However in response to this the UK Government has said that the Welsh Government have the power to decide if coal mines are given a license.

A UK Government spokesman said: “The Coal Authority [part of the UK Government] is responsible for licensing coal mines, including for Aberpergwm. The BEIS secretary of state is not involved in this process, as Welsh Ministers have the power under the Coal Industry Act to make the final decision on whether coal mining operations in Wales can be progressed.”

So why haven’t the Welsh Governments stepped in themselves to close withdraw the license? Well the Welsh Government claim they haven’t got the power to do this for an existing mine.

Wales’ powers on coal licensing come from the Wales Act 2017 which took effect from April 2018. Welsh Ministers can only agree or refuse to endorse new or extended licences as issued by the Coal Authority.

The license for coal extraction at Aberpergwm was originally issued in 1996, and then varied in 2013 to expand the mineable area, subject to achieving planning permission. The Welsh Government claim that these decisions followed UK Government policy, within the remit the UK Government set for the Coal Authority to secure an economically-viable coal mining industry.

A Welsh Government spokesman told WalesOnline: “A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The Coal Authority has informed us it is considering whether conditions attached to an existing license for Aberpergwm mine have been discharged. If they have, mining operations could potentially take place, enabling up to up to 40m tonnes of coal to be extracted by 2039. This would have a major impact on Welsh and UK greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a complex issue. The original licence was issued in 1996 and varied in 2013 under UK Government policies. As this is not a new licence, Welsh Ministers are not able to intervene in the licensing process.

“As the sponsoring body of the Coal Authority, we have asked the Secretary of State for BEIS to intervene urgently, in line with the UK’s climate targets and the Prime Minister’s stated aim to consign coal to history.”

This gets more confusing when you speak to the company in question. The mine is run by Energybuild Ltd who claim that the figures put forward by Mr Waters are wrong.

Aberpergwm mine is Western Europe’s only producer of high-grade anthracite with some of that which is mined going to Tata steel plant in Port Talbot.

It says it employs 160 people in the Vale of Neath area plus 16 apprentices.

Speaking to the BBC the managing director of Energybuild Rhidian Davies said: “Anthracite is a highly desirable mineral used predominately for its manufacturing characteristics as opposed to its thermal properties”.

He added that Energybuild “brought more than £100m of investment into the locality”.

He added that carbon products “will play a significant role in developing sustainable technology of the future, ideally in a circular economy [without waste and pollution]”.

“Our products are in significant demand to support the transition to a sustainable green economy.”

Wayne Evans, NUM general secretary for south Wales, said that if the colliery was shut, steel companies would have to import it instead.

“If the coal from this colliery is stopped from going into British steel, or Tata Steel, that will be replaced with coal coming from Indonesia or Australia, halfway across the world,” he said.

“Surely that undermines his argument about the carbon footprint, and his reasons for closing this mine is surely totally undermined by his own statement. It’s ludicrous.”



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