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.

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