“The screen behind shows where Britain is getting its energy from right now,” explained Natasa Dinic from the National Grid in a recent BBC News segment that triumphantly celebrated the UK going cold turkey from coal for two months.
“Why would you burn coal?” the BBC presenter claimed, when “you can get electricity from these” – and the shot changing to panoramic film of wind turbines. However, a quick rewind to a list displayed in the previous interview at the National Grid reveals that wind actually powered a paltry 1.7 per cent of our grid, with almost 80 per cent coming from gas and nuclear power.
But the central point remains. The UK has gone two months without coal in the energy mix all, and both Labour and the Conservatives are jubilant. So why, Darren, you might ask, why are you about to argue that we still need it?
Coal use in UK electricity generation will come to an end by 2024 – that’s set in law. This is achievable because of practical, lower emission alternatives that can be deployed at the necessary scale, such as gas and nuclear, and not the BBC’s hot air about wind. However, this doesn’t tell us the full story.
While it is true that coal will soon no longer be part of our electricity generation, it still makes general, economic and environmental sense to obtain the coal needed for a range of crucial industrial needs by mining it here at home.
There’s a massive domestic demand for coal in such industries as steel, cement, the UK’s heritage railways and even for the heating of rural homes. Going forward, once all coal-fired generation ceases, it’s estimated that the UK will still need around five million tonnes for these industries every year.
I come from an ex-mining village in County Durham; coal and community runs through my family tree. My grandad and his dad before him mined coal. Grandad had arthritis, respiratory problems and couldn’t fully extend his arm thanks to his years down the pit. It would have been unthinkable for him to see his offspring go through what he had to, but such are, thankfully, no longer the working conditions for hardworking lads and lasses working in the industry in the North East today.
Surface mining is a much cleaner and safer operation to extract the coal that we still need. It’s a process that’s complete with restoration and regeneration projects, represents a boost for the local economy and is a world away from the dust-ridden and unsafe practices that my great-grandad once endured.
That’s why I am incensed by moves that would see these high-skill, high-wage jobs in extracting that coal that we need here at home, exported elsewhere – especially when it’s to the likes of Russia.
When you consider that our Prime Minister has never met a bridge he doesn’t like and, with the levelling-up agenda that he’s promised to communities like mine (that gave him his 80-seat majority), the UK is going to require a lot of coal to produce the necessary steel and cement.
Coal that without the means of having a local coal source, you’d have to import and ship in a very costly way – likely from halfway around the world. Take HS2; the government reckons that an estimated 2,000,000 tones of steel will be needed. To produce that amount of steel, 1.6 million tonnes of coal would be required. Does it make sense to import this coal from the Russian bear, thousands of miles away from our shores?
The stats are stark. In 2018, just to transport 4.7million tonnes of Russian coal was equivalent to a whopping 130 jumbo jets whizzing, non-stop, around the globe for an entire year. It’s enough to make even Hollywood-greenie Emma Thompson blush, who famously flew 5,400 miles from LA to London to show how green she was at an Extinction Rebellion protest last year.
I’m surely not alone in believing it ridiculous to propose forgoing high-skill, high wage jobs here at home, which would enable us to remove thousands of carbon-miles out of the levelling-up process, only to export them overseas. But that, regrettably, is precisely what the government looks set to endorse.
There is a proposed open cast mining site, the Highthorn scheme, that would see Banks Mining create at least 100 well-paid, full-time jobs on a site in Northumberland. The Government is currently opposing this plan, which would invest £87 million into the local economy.
It would also keep a total of £200 million within the UK economy, by ensuring we can do without the importation of three million tonnes of coal from international suppliers, as well as supply chain contracts worth an estimated £48 million to local businesses. These are all impressive feats that Banks Group have already pulled off at other sites.
The North East employer put forward the scheme that was recommended for approval by Northumberland County Council and the Government-appointed Planning Inspectorate. This was then rejected in 2017 by the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, disregarding the planning inspector’s decision for the scheme to go ahead.
Banks Group appealed the decision. After presiding over a two-day hearing, the Judge did not hold back. Mr Justice Ouseley found in favour of Banks Mining on all of the bases on which the challenge was lodged, describing Javid’s rejection of the planning inspector’s findings as ‘significantly inadequate.’
Despite this, the scheme is yet to get the go-ahead. Meanwhile, we continue to import our coal from bad-faith actors on the international stage. The greenhouse gas emissions directly linked to the transportation of these imports, from Russia to UK consumers, are five to seven times higher than transporting coal mined here at home.
Mining the coal we need in the UK massively cuts greenhouse gases, offers an immediate boost to the levelling-up agenda, is all done under UK safety, employment and environmental standards (do you reckon you can say the same thing about that mined in Russia?), and the carbon emissions saving from not having to transport this coal from Russia is equivalent to covering an area the size of Newcastle upon Tyne in trees.
Our politicians can celebrate the fact that the national grid has gone two months without coal, but they can show that they care about the North East, and reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, by reversing the lunacy of denying jobs in a region desperate for them – all in a futile attempt to appease the likes of the privileged prats in Extinction Rebellion.
The North East doesn’t want state handouts or meaningless slogans; it wants jobs, opportunities and transport links. The Government will be sending the wrong message entirely to these new voters if it makes clear that, by destroying potentially high-wage, high-skill jobs in coal extraction, the first casualty of its asphyxiating net-zero by 2050 target will be them.
Prime Minister, voters in the North East have placed their trust in you; do not let our lads and lasses down.
Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.