Opencast coal and Climate Change: What will our new government do?

Kelvin Mason calls on the new Welsh Government to stop opencast mining in Wales.

Just a few weeks ago, on the eve of Assembly elections, I joined around three-hundred other people at the Reclaim the Power (RtP) protest camp. The camp was next to Merthyr Tydfil’s notorious Ffos-y-Frân opencast coalmine. RtP’s message was clear: End Coal Now! Burning fossil fuels is of course one of the main drivers of climate change. The UK-wide RtP network allied with local residents the United Valley’s Action Group. Breathing smoke, a Welsh dragon led more than 300 people in red boiler-suits in a mass trespass of Ffos-y-Frân, closing the mine for 12 hours. The occupation ended voluntarily with no violence, no damage and no arrests. RtP’s camp launched a year of ‘Groundswell’ actions for climate justice across the world.

Media coverage was global, but the story first broke in the humble Ceredigion Herald! The occupation was then lead item on TV news in Wales for three days straight. It made the Western Mail, Guardian, the Times and Daily Mail. Social media too was all over the story. One of RtP’s aims was to get politicians of all parties in Wales to state their commitment to stop opencast mining. So, with the eyes of the world upon them, what will our new government do?

Ffos-y-Frân, Aberthaw and Nant Llesg

The 11 million tonne Ffos-y-Frân opencast coalmine has a devastating environmental impact both locally and globally. Dust, noise and visual pollution has generated opposition to the mine in the local community since 2004. Developers Miller Argent have monstrously reshaped the landscape, creating mountains of filthy over-burden along with a hole in ground the size of 400 football pitches. This in an area on the edge of the Brecon beacons National Park that is otherwise reinventing itself as a centre for tourism and clean industry. Were it to continue to mine until 2025 as proposed, the coal produced by Ffos-y-Frân would result in the emission of a climate devastating 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Around 95% of the coal from Ffos-y-Frân goes to the 1,555 Megawatt  Aberthaw power station. In January this year Aberthaw received a public subsidy of £27 million pounds to continue operation. However, the power station is the subject of a case before the European Court of Justice because it emits more than twice the legal limit of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx). As a result, in late April 2016, Aberthaw announced that it was downgrading operations. From now on it will only generate electricity at times of peak demand, and even then will source cleaner coal than Ffos-y-Frân can produce.

Despite this seemingly mortal blow, the developers of Ffos-y-Frân are seeking planning permission for another opencast mine. Right next door to Ffos-y-Frân on the Rhymney side of the mountain, Nant Llesg would produce 6 million tonnes of coal and so be responsible for around 13.60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In August 2015 Caerphilly Councillors rejected the advice of their planning officers and refused Miller Argent’s Nant Llesg application despite the company’s bullying threat of legal action. Miller Argent’s appeal is set to come before the Planning Inspectorate in Wales later this year.

However, in January Miller Argent Holdings suddenly sold out to the little known Gwent Investments. The fear among environmental campaigners now is that Gwent Investments will withdraw and not fulfil obligations to reclaim the Ffos-y-Frân site. Such a scenario occurred when Scottish Coal went into liquidation in 2013, leaving behind deteriorating opencast sites and an escalating risk of pollution, flooding and accidents.

Politics and government

Last year the Senedd voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast coal, a motion introduced by long-term campaigner Bethan Jenkins of Plaid Cymru. The result was rejected by the Welsh Labour government. Plaid MEP Jill Evans has backed UVAG’s case before the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee saying ‘Ffos-y-Fran has had a devastating environmental impact, primarily on the residents but also on a much wider scale considering our commitment to reducing carbon emissions.’ On the live television debate ‘Ask the Leader’, Leanne Wood pledged her party to no new opencast in Wales, though she stopped short of a commitment to close Ffos-y-Frân.

In advance of their protest camp, RtP emailed Assembly candidates: ‘We would like to know if you would actively support an end to open-cast mining in Wales, together with a plan to create green jobs, if you are elected on 5th May’? RtP were disappointed that only three of the candidates who responded positively were elected, Sian Gwenllian, Llyr Gruffydd and Elin Jones, all of Plaid Cymru.  Now the Assembly’s newly elected presiding officer, Elin Jones responded: “The era of Wales’s economy being geared to taking natural resources out of the ground belongs in the past. We have huge potential to become a world leader in green technology such as tidal energy and micro-generation, which would create good jobs and help farm incomes.’

Manifesto commitments

Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto pledges no new opencast mining and no fracking. With the aspiration of Wales being self-sufficient from renewable energy sources by 2035, Plaid Cymru would back tidal lagoons and set robust targets on climate change. The Liberal Democrat promise is to set a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to produce all our electricity from renewable sources by 2025. The Green Party commit to meeting all electricity demand in Wales from renewable sources by 2030 and to banning fracking. The only party to actively support RtP’s action, the Green Party’s unjust reward was to win no Assembly seats at all.

Very much on the other side of the environmental coin, Welsh Conservatives promise to halt the spread of onshore wind farms. Moreover, they would meet Wales’ climate change commitments by ‘cutting carbon emissions as cheaply as possible’. Going beyond cheapskate, UKIP would axe all of the currently £73 million Welsh government budget for climate change projects. With no specific manifesto section on energy and climate change, Welsh Labour made a vague promise to take a lead in developing more renewable energy projects, ‘supporting technologies like tidal lagoons’.

So, what can we expect?

With Welsh Labour leading government in Wales once again, it seems that we can expect the same-old-same-old approach to energy and the environment. Labour habitually put jobs first and have been slow to engage with concepts such as green jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation ‘Green jobs are decent jobs that contribute to preserve or restore the environment, be they in traditional sectors such as manufacturing and construction, or in new, emerging green sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.’ Welsh Labour is, it seems to me, akin to a dinosaur lumbering into a new century too slowly to ensure survival! In government again, will they continue to subsidise Aberthaw? Will they act to close Ffos-y-Frân and force the developers to reclaim the site? Will they oppose new opencast mines at Nant Llesg, Varteg and wherever else they are proposed? Given the make-up of the rest of the parliament, it’s apparent that we must depend on Plaid Cymru and the last surviving Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams to take Labour to task on opencast mining, coal-fired power and climate change. They will have a job on their hands.

Kelvin Mason is a Writer and Campaigner.

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