The British government seeks to be a world leader in phasing out coal through the Powering Past Coal Alliance - but this mine and the Banks Group could show them to be all mouth and no trousers.
The British government says it wants to be seen as a world leader in phasing-out coal. But when it comes to the future of opencast coal mines here in the UK, the government is not sure what it really wants.
The mining company Banks Group is now seeking to start a new opencast coal mine in Durham. It is one of the few mining companies trying to expand opencast coal mining in Britain. Coal Action Network and the local community have vowed to stop them.
Banks already operates two large opencast coal mines close to the town of Cramlington in Northumberland. Shotton, England's largest opencast coal mine, and Brenkley Lane are both situated on Lord (Matt) Ridley’s estate.
Ridley is a hereditary peer, known for his 'lukewarm' position on climate change. He says on his website. “I am a climate lukewarmer. That means I think recent global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue but I no longer think it is likely to be dangerous and I think its slow and erratic progress so far is what we should expect in the future."
Shotton opencast has been the site of protest. It is due to close this year. In Shotton's place Banks hopes to start a new mine at Highthorn on the Northumberland coastline, close to the tourist destination Druridge Bay.
The planning application was approved in the summer of 2016. But then local residents group Save Druridge and Friends of the Earth persuaded Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to 'call in' the decision.
The secretary of state was expected to announce the future of Druridge Bay by the 5th March, but this has now been delayed without a new date being set.
In a last ditched attempt to secure a new mine, Banks is seeking to start work at Bradley, a site between Dipton and Leadgate. The Bradley site was granted permission when it was owned by the now defunct UK Coal. Planning runs out on the 3rd June 2018 so for Banks it is essential it starts work this spring.
Badgers and bats
Pitch Wilson, a local resident and Secretary of the Derwent Valley Protection Society, said: “For 50 years we have battled to save the Derwent valley. Prior to the last appeal there were ten other appeals by mining companies, each was dismissed as every inspector said the environment is more important than the need for coal, even during the miners strike and the oil crisis in the 70s."
In February, a final attempt to use the legal system to stop this mine was made. 25 residents and three local groups, along with the Coal Action Network appealed to Sajid Javid to revoke planning permission on this mine.
The government could stop this mine and put into action their coal phase-out promises. Now the race is on to see if the secretary of state will stop the mine at Bradley before Banks pushes ahead to start work before the planning runs out.
Both Bradley and Druridge Bay are beautiful greenfield, rural sites. As were Shotton and Brenkley Lane. The site at Bradley is partly within an Area of High Landscape Value.
It includes two local wildlife sites and hosts a wealth of wildlife including great crested newts (a European Protected Species which infuriates Matt Ridley), reintroduced red kites, common blue butterflies, badgers and bats. The area is extensively used by walkers, runners and children playing.
The Banks Group's strapline is 'development with care'. It certainly cares more about its public face than many mining companies, but so far they have shown no regard for the strong 'no' from this community to mining at Bradley.
In June 2015, the planning inspector said that “the projected supply of coal should be taken to represent a national benefit carrying great weight”.
The local people do not agree. Their letter to the secretary of state argues that coal's contribution to the UK's energy mix is down to just 7 percent. It is expected that by the time 'coaling' starts at Bradley, UK consumption will be down 75 percent from when the application was approved.
Thomas Davison, 28, a resident living 300 metres away from the proposed opencast site told The Ecologist: “Banks' desire to extract 550,000 tonnes of coal is driven by nothing more than profit and not at all by a genuine need for energy. We have moved on to other forms of cleaner energy for the good of our global climate. So why is it worth harming the local wildlife and the local economy for one last money grab?”
Banks Group have started to prepare for the access road by removing trees and an ancient hedgeline, this is preliminary to the work which is considered the 'start' of the site.
In response, hardy local residents and campaigners set up a protection camp to stop Banks during the 'Beast from the East' storm. Further work is expected at the end of March, campaigners vow to stop it. They are inviting people to join them at the camp to physically protect the area.
If this opencast were to go ahead it would be the first new English coal mine since 2013. As the UK government seeks to be a world leader in phasing-out coal through the Powering Past Coal Alliance, this mine and the Banks Group could show them to be all mouth and no trousers.
We need a "just transition" from fossil fuels to a sustainable climate for workers and communities. It's time for the government to listen to those living in former pit villages and to implement a complete coal phase-out, including opencast mining - now.
Anne Harris is a campaigner with the Coal Action Network, she co-authored Ditch Coal (2016) which looks at the mining impacts of the UK's addiction to coal, and has been active against coal in the UK since 2008. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Add your support by signing our petition asking the secretary of state to stop the new mine. Come and visit the Pont Valley Protection Camp, pop in for a cup of tea or stay on the camp and resist the opencast. For more info see the Coal Action Network website.
Right of Reply
Lewis Stokes, community relations manager at the Banks Group, said: "The Government’s own projections state that coal will continue to be an important part of the UK's energy mix until at least 2025, and substantial amounts are also essential for a wide variety of important UK industrial processes, such as the manufacturing of cement and steel.
"Coal has been used to meet more than a quarter of the country's energy requirements during the recent spell of cold weather, which clearly demonstrates the importance of its use to provide an essential and resilient part of a balanced mix of energy generation sources over the medium term.
"As a North East business which operates both surface coal mines and onshore wind farms, we were pleased to have continued to contribute to meeting the UK's energy requirements through using indigenous means of production during those very challenging days."