Undermining King Coal

Can the battle against coal be won? Not if Labour stays in power

The small village of Douglas in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, is surrounded by three opencast coal mines. If you stand at certain points on the high street it's almost impossible to find a view that does not contain a mine - and they are not a pretty sight. Where deep mining goes far below the ground, opencast coal mining just lifts off the surface, leaving huge black craters gaping dully at the sky.

So, when the villagers heard that there were plans to open up a fourth mine, they united against it, and the population of about a thousand sent 650 letters of complaint. It was no good: they were overruled. After so many defeats, with Scottish Coal trundling their way, they were on their knees.
And then, this summer, a bunch of activists arrived and moved into the woods where Scottish Coal was planning to dig (a bit like the Magnificent Seven, except with peppermint tea and Quorn instead of guns and chewing tobacco). They were welcomed by the villagers, who have been taking food out to them and holding meetings about resistance ever since.

Meanwhile, across the UK, similar campaigns against new mines or new coal-fired plants are springing to life at an amazing rate: there's a judicial review of one application going on in Hunterston, a steadily growing organisation in Kingsnorth, legal action in Ffos-y-Fran . . .

This all comes against a background that suggests a growing exploitation of our native coal. Although deep mining continues to decrease, opencast mining has been increasing for the past few years, with proposals being waved through by ministers at a steady rate. Greenpeace, which has been trying to make the link in the public's minds between coal and climate change (coal is responsible for 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions), has been flagging up the plans for new coal-fired power stations such as Kingsnorth. Now these spontaneously mushrooming local groups are doing their best to make us think about the stuff that is actually coming out of the ground.

Can the battle against coal be won, though? Not if Labour stays in power, I'm afraid. This past week, at a panel discussion on coal, Joan Ruddock, the minister for energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said firmly that although there were ways of getting round a dependence on coal, she didn't think they were "practicable or affordable".

Instead, we are to await the arrival of Carbon Capture and Storage, a technology to tap into the carbon emissions of coal that will cost millions and that doesn't yet fully exist. (Does this sound more practicable or affordable to Labour? Apparently so.) And while we wait, we'll make sure that coal-fired power plants are "CCS-ready", which means leaving a big space beside them into which a CCS plant can be put. (One environmentalist joked that his driveway is "Ferrari-ready, but it doesn't mean I'm going to get one".)

Who knows what the Tories will do? Election promises are useless. But if they are faced over the next six months with a well-organised national resistance to dependence on coal, they may give a bit of ground. That's what the villagers in Douglas will be hoping for, at least.

Bibi van der Zee's column appears fortnightly. Read an archive of her previous writing.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush