No coal comfort

Kelvin Mason says it’s time to draw a line under a new coal age.

‘If this is allowed to happen, we might as well give up now.’

So wrote George Monbiot in the Guardian of October 2007. Monbiot was referring to the prospect of Ffos y Fran opencast coal mine near Merthyr Tydfil. With an expected production of almost 11 million tonnes of coal over its lifetime, emitting a staggering 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burned, Ffos y Fran signalled ‘The New Coal Age’. Recall that Monbiot was writing in an optimistic moment for climate change, before the environmentally disastrous COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. He was also writing in an optimistic place, Wales, which has sustainable development enshrined in its constitution. The authorities in Wales, from the Labour controlled government to Merthyr Tydfil Council did allow Ffos y Fran to happen, however. More than ‘allow’, these authorities actively facilitated it. They accepted its gross misrepresentation as a land reclamation scheme. Legislation that would have seen a 500 metre buffer zone protecting residents who ended up living within 40 metres of a dirty, noisy anachronism was delayed. All this it seems, to supply coal to another anachronism, Aberthaw power station, the pollution from which contravenes EU regulations an is likely to land the UK government in court.

Although Monbiot’s fears were confirmed on the one hand, his pessimism on the other proved wrong. Communities and environmentalists resisting ‘The New Coal Age’ have not given up. For future reference, fossil fuel corporations and governments everywhere should take note that they will not give up, they cannot, there is simply too much at stake. Ffos y Fran mobilised climate activists, first in west Wales, then across Wales and beyond, to come to Merthyr to take action with local people, Resident Against Ffos y Fran. In the process, these climate activists, concerned for the planet, learned what an opencast coalmine means for people locally: the experience of dust, noise and, perhaps worst of all, the callous disregard of corporations, local and central government.

Activists held numerous rallies and took direct action, sometimes closing Ffos y Fran. On the steps of Merthyr Council offices a pantomime wedding between them and Miller-Argent, the consortium behind Ffos y Fran, parodied the inappropriately intimate relationship. In 2009 activists staged Climate Camp Cymru, which attracted more then 500 people and brought the travesty of Ffos y Fran to much wider attention. In 2010, some people cycled from ‘Merthyr to Mayo’ to forge solidarity with those struggling against Shell’s Corrib gas pipeline and sustain public interest. Since then, people in south Wales have continued their daily struggle against Ffos y Fran on several fronts. In this, they have received committed support from Friends of the Earth and AM Bethan Jenkins. In recent years, residents formed the United Valley’s Action Group to face up to a new threat, Miller Argent’s plans for another opencast mine, Nant Llesg, just over the hill from Foss y Fran, on the outskirts of Rhymney.

On the 5th of August 2015, these local campaigners and climate change activists finally received some reward for all their efforts. Exhibiting the foresight and backbone that Merthyr lacked in 2007, Caerphilly Councillors refused Miller Argent’s application to mine Nant Llesg. Accepting the responsibility that a negligent central government foisted upon them when it refused to call the application in, they acted in the best interests of both local people and the planet. To do so took considerable moral courage as Councillors were obliged to reject the advice of their planning officers, revealing those professionals as alarmingly out of touch. There was also the threat of legal action from Miller Argent, whose ‘bully-boy tactics’ back-fired on them as Councillors rightly identified and then defied them.

Despite climate change legislation, low fossil prices globally, operators such as Scottish Coal going bust and calls from AMs for a moratorium on opencast mining, Miller Argent may yet appeal the Council’s decision. It is worth, then, reminding ourselves how Nant Llesg would decimate a developing local economy based on clean air and water, breathtaking scenery and a green environment, as a study by the Welsh Economy Research Unit of Cardiff University highlights. It would also blight the daily lives and health of people living near to and down wind from the site, residents of Rhymney and the surrounding villages. And, on a conservative estimate, it would produce at least 6 million tonnes of coal and so be responsible for around 13.60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. How many future deaths around the world is that? How inconceivable does it seem, at this moment in history, to be even considering investing in fossil fuels? He could certainly have had the courage to act decisively back in 2009, but at long last it seems that Barrack Obama is attempting to soften even the hard carbon-heart of America. While his opponents denounced his clean power plan as ‘declaring war on coal’, Obama proclaimed that ‘Climate Change is not a problem for another generation… This is our moment to get this right.’

The valleys of south Wales fuelled the industrial revolution with coal. In 2015 Caerphilly Councillors kindled the spark of a Green revolution, a spark that had been so steadfastly tended and presented to them by committed, knowledgeable and caring local people. The Council’s decision signals the imperative to remake Wales as a proud place to live in the 21st Century, a land where the people control the resources and enjoy a healthy environment, connected to the world. It has long gone time to draw a bold line under the ill-conceived lunacy of a short but far from sweet new coal age.

Kelvin Mason is a researcher with a long-term interest in climate change, social movements and values, particularly in Wales.

2 thoughts on “No coal comfort

  1. Coal is controversial, open cast coal even more so. What would really set things afire here would be the prospect of bilingual coal (best done in capital letters, I suspect). That would really put a ‘glo’ into the comments section.

  2. An interesting piece.

    It will be six years ago in November when Bethan Jenkins secured from then-Environment Minister Jane Davidson a promise that the five exclusion criteria included in MTAN2 – which the author points out was used to devastating effect at Ffos y Fran – would be reviewed once they were tested at law.

    They were subsequently tested – all the way up to the highest court in the land – by Celtic Energy, which wanted to continue coaling at its Parc Slip site at Margam. It ultimately failed (and subsequently downed tools – the site remains abandoned and not restored as per commitments made by the company in prior Section 106 agreements), but what it did was set the litigious strategy in which Celtic Energy led and other operators followed that characterises latter day opencast operations, together with moving the cost of restoration to the very end of coaling.

    In the High Court and Court of Appeal findings, both judges heavily criticised the Welsh Government for the uneven and incomplete way that MTAN2 was being used. They called for clarity. In subsequent meetings that Bethan held with the Welsh Government, ministers – or, rather, officials – argued that there was nothing wrong with the advice note as it was written, and that all was well with MTAN2.

    Thereafter, a new approach begun to be taken by local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate, in which the “advice” element of MTAN2 was emphasised. As one consent after another was granted – against the economic grain, as pointed out here – it was justified by planning officers and inspectors who said that MTAN2 was only a document that local planning authorities must have regard to but may not necessarily adhere to. My own cynical view is that many cash-strapped local authorities would rather do anything than spend five years in the courts fighting aggressive opencast operators that appear to employ as many lawyers as colliers.

    Then the collapse of Scottish Coal happened. Around a year afterwards, the Welsh Government released a report into the restoration of opencast sites in Wales. As flawed as this was, written by consultants to the industry whose natural inclination is to pity the developer while the concerns of local communities went unaddressed, it nonetheless also called for a review of MTAN2.

    A year after that, the Welsh Government convened an opencast summit, at which very little was decided, and further action is now promised. A review of MTAN2 is underway, we are told. There are differing views among communities as to how this should be achieved, but there is an almost-universal belief that the advice note – particularly the exemptions – falsely raises the expectations of communities who, in reality, are provided with very little planning protection against opencast.

    Two years to get even this far demonstrate the priority that the Welsh Government gives to this issue. In recent times, Labour MPs have begun to look to the current government for redress, citing the 1993 Coal Industry Act, which privatised the sector, as the original sin. The Welsh Government enthusiastically supports this, although it has yet to meet with counterparts in Whitehall to press the case.

    In reality, this is a numbers game for the Welsh Government. Although opencast pits are found mostly in the former coaling areas in South Wales, nevertheless it is usually small communities, usually of little more than a couple of hundred people, who live with the intrusion that this kind of mining brings. To politicians, their votes are few, while to officials their needs are disproportionately costly.

    What this issue requires is firm direction from the top. Bethan Jenkins has suggested local mining panels, pooled expertise between local authorities and a host of other measures, none of which have been taken up with enthusiasm – or even acknowledged – by Welsh ministers. There is no indication that this situation will change radically any time soon.

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