The debate over the future of the UK’s shrunken coal industry is being played out at a Northumberland beauty spot where one of the country’s last active miners wants to develop its latest project.
Druridge Bay, a stretch of North Sea beach beloved of dog walkers and the hardiest of swimmers, is just a few hundred metres from where Banks Group wants a mine to extract 3m tonnes of coal.
Banks’ application for the Highthorn surface mine — already backed by the local council — comes as much of the industry that needs coal is disappearing or winding down.
This year, for the first time, the UK went for periods when it used no coal for electricity generation. Demand for coal by electricity generators in the first quarter of 2016 was 50 per cent lower than in the same quarter last year. All coal-fired power stations are supposed to be phased out by 2025, according to government policy.
That phase-out highlights the big uncertainties in the market for coal mined in the UK. Output of UK coal has halved over the past five years to fewer than 9m tonnes a year.
The demise of deep-level mining, which accelerated after the mid-1980s miners’ strike and culminated in the closure of the last deep mine, Kellingley, in December, has sometimes obscured the remaining surface coal mining sector, where companies including Banks excavate open pits. Surface mines produced 5.8m tonnes of coal last year.
The transition away from coal has already forced a change of strategy from one of the remaining producers. Hargreaves Services, which a year ago was producing coal at six UK sites, now has just two operating mines. One of those is due to close by the end of September, leaving Hargreaves with one mine, House of Water in East Ayrshire, which is expected to supply 350,000 tonnes of coal for at least five more years.
Hargreaves blames a series of announced power station closures, a tougher government stance on coal-fired generation and continuing low coal prices.
“We are not exiting the coal market but being much more focused. We have to be realistic,” said Ian Cockburn, finance director of Hargreaves. “We always said that coal would be limited but the rundown has accelerated significantly over the past 12 months.”
Imports of coal have also plummeted. They fell 42 per cent last year and in the first quarter of this year are 76 per cent down on 2015. Most is from Colombia.
Given the uncertainties, is any new surface mine needed? Hargreaves has given up planning permission for one mine near Edinburgh. “We cannot see it ever getting to the point where price and demand could be lined up . . . to allow that site to be developed,” Mr Cockburn said.
Banks itself in April suspended production at a surface mine in Scotland after the closure of the nearby Longannet power station.
But the privately owned group, which has two operating mines in Northumberland, says it still expects UK coal demand to outweigh domestic production well into the next decade.
“We work to have a forward programme of sites that are capable of supplying about 1m tonnes per year [for] anticipated UK coal demand,” the company said.
“It makes far more sense to support UK jobs and to provide a secure domestic supply of energy by mining our own indigenous coal reserves through carefully planned and sensitively operated schemes . . . rather than relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles distant.”
Banks wants to operate at Highthorn for seven years including set-up and restoration periods. The mine would create 50 jobs with a further 50 transferred from other sites.
Northumberland county council’s strategic planning committee decided last month it was “minded to approve” the application, meaning the decision would be passed to Sajid Javid, the secretary of state for communities and local government.
Two MPs from contrasting political backgrounds — Tory MP for Berwick Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Labour’s shadow energy minister Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North — have both asked Mr Javid to call in the application, meaning a public inquiry would be held. “Ministers are considering the request,” the communities department said.
Grant Davey, Northumberland county council’s leader, said that while he appreciated it was controversial, the mine would bring much needed jobs to the area and boost growth.
“I fully accept this has been a long and difficult process with strong feelings on both sides but I do believe this decision is in the best interests of Northumberland and its residents,” he said.
Duncan Lawrence, owner of the Drift Café adjacent to the sand dunes of Druridge Bay, is also chair of the Save Druridge Campaign. He worries about tourist businesses such as his own and disputes that the local coal will be needed.
“The government are saying they intend to end coal use and reduce emissions. It’s important that starts now. We need to lead the way on these things. There is absolutely no need for it. The vast majority of coal we use in this country is imported,” he said.
“The use of UK coal is absolutely minuscule. If we stop using British coal today it won’t make a jot of difference to the energy mix.”
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