UK has more coal than it will ever need

| 14th May 2019
Protesters in countryside with banner saying 'No thanks Banks, don't mine Bradley'.
Why are coal-fired power stations continuing to buy coal in excess of their projected life span?

"Every tonne of thermal coal that has come out of the ground at Bradley over the past 10 months has been surplus to the UK's requirements. Banks Group's justification for destroying our valley and seeking to open new mines is based on the lie that they are providing for UK household energy needs.” - June Davison, Campaign to Protect Pont Valley

Current stockpiles of coal in the UK are more than twice what the government anticipates coal-fired power stations will need ahead of the 2025 deadline for ending coal-fired power for electricity, latest government figures show.

At the end of 2018, 4.1 million tonnes of coal was stockpiled at UK power stations. Analysis by Friends of the Earth indicates that this is more than double the 1.6 million tonnes of coal that the government predicts the UK will need for UK coal-fired electricity generation, which is due to end by 2025.

Findings by Coal Action Network suggested that this excess in coal in the UK is triggering increased exports of the fossil fuel onto the global market. Exports of coal from the UK are at an eight year high, increasing 28 percent in 2018, and sourced from the UK’s opencast coal mines.

Climate impacts

Dr Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at the The Australia Institute, commented on the findings: “Economics 101 tells us that when you increase the supply of something you push down the price.

"By mining more coal in the UK than is burned in the UK there is no doubt that the UK coal industry is putting downward pressure on world coal prices and, in turn, leading to an increase in consumption of coal globally.

This will undermine international commitments to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The only reason the UK should approve new coal mines, when it already has more coal than it can burn, is if it hopes to increase coal consumption in other countries.”

Increasingly low coal generation could be one reason why stockpiles have continued to grow; Drax power station has not burnt coal since March 23rd, Aberthaw since 14th March and  West Burton since January.

It’s not clear why coal-fired power stations are continuing to buy coal in excess of their projected life span.

Opencast mines

Opencast coal extraction involves stripping large areas of topsoil and subsoil to extract vast quantities of coal using heavy machinery and dynamite.

In the UK it has been is far more destructive to the local environment than traditional mining which it came to replace, hosting a very small number of jobs compared to the pre-Thatcher deep mining industry. It comes primarily from mines in the North-East of England and Wales.

A new opencast coal mine ‘Bradley’ in Pont Valley, County Durham was allowed to go ahead in June 2018, amid fierce local opposition.

June Davison, a local campaigner reacted to the news that Bradley coal was going into inflated stockpiles: "Every tonne of thermal coal that has come out of the ground at Bradley over the past 10 months has been surplus to the UK's requirements.

"Banks Group's justification for destroying our valley and seeking to open new mines is based on the lie that they are providing for UK household energy needs.”

Despite the figures, the UK is still importing coal from opencast mines, adding to the surplus in stockpiles. In the first two months alone of 2019, 1.2 million tonnes of coal have been imported from Russia, North America and Colombia.

Violent displacement 

In Russia and Colombia, two of the sources of the coal that is still being imported, opencast coal mining happens on a vast scale and has come with land-grabs, violent displacement, poisoning of river and watercourses, and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. 

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman for Russian environmental group Ecodefense, said: "The news that the UK power stations continue to buy Russian coal despite having too much already adds insult to injury to those on the frontline of opencast coal destruction.

"Coal mining in Russia means environmental destruction and human rights violations. The more coal tainted with blood the UK buys from Russia, the more damage caused.” 

Samuel Arragoces, displaced from the community of Tobacco by the Colombian mine Cerrejon, said: "We are worried about what is happening in the UK, where the government promised to phase out coal.

"Coal mining here in La Guajira, Colombia, is causing more suffering every day. Our question for the UK government is, will it keep letting power stations buy this coal now that it will not be needed? Because here the coal mine is seeking to expand, polluting more water sources, stealing more land.

"Our community leaders are threatened with death for trying to stop this. So will the UK carry on being a marketplace for this coal?’

What next 

On 13 June 2019 the Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government is due to make a decision on whether or not to allow the Highthorn Mine at Druridge Bay, Northumberland, to go ahead, and whether or not to stop the Bradley mine at Pont Valley in County Durham. 

On 14 June 2019, another proposed opencast coal mine is due to be considered by Newcastle City Council, (Dewley Hill at Throckley, near Newcastle), which is expected to be influenced by the outcome of the decisions on Bradley and Highthorn.

A clue to what might happen lies in the Planning Inspectors’ report on the Highthorn application: "If the Secretary of State were to conclude, on the basis of the available evidence, that no such ‘window’ exists for coal-fired generation, then the need for, and benefits of, Highthorn coal would be much diminished.

"The planning balance then would be fundamentally altered, and in those circumstances, I consider that there would be a strong case for refusing the planning application.’

Local communities are mobilising against all the plans in what could be a crucial moment for the future of coal mining. You can follow their campaigns here: Campaign to Protect Pont ValleySave DruridgeDefend Dewley Hill

This Author

Isobel Tarr is a campaigner at Coal Action Network.

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