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King coal prepares for a comeback

Neil Barnett says the miners’ union that took on Margaret Thatcher and lost is now talking surprisingly good sense about Britain’s future energy security

3 September 2008

12:00 AM

3 September 2008

12:00 AM

Neil Barnett says the miners’ union that took on Margaret Thatcher and lost is now talking surprisingly good sense about Britain’s future energy security

The National Union of Mineworkers’ headquarters in Barnsley has a splendid retro feel. In the assembly hall hang banners celebrating the struggles of the working class: from one of them, Arthur Scargill, Shredded Wheat comb-over to the fore, stares into the middle distance; another from Kellingley Colliery shows a miner wearing only trousers and a helmet, throttling a huge python labelled ‘Capitalism’. The script below declares ‘Only the strong survive’, while behind him an optimist has written ‘Socialism Leads to Prosperity’. The result is an original mixture of Stakhanovite propaganda, Wallace and Gromit and the Village People.

And yet one can’t help admire the tenacity of the NUM. Having come out much the worse from the ‘Great Miners’ Strike’ of 1984-85, its membership dramatically reduced, the union soldiers on, its ideology set in amber. But while the NUM’s rhetoric has not changed, the global energy market has, and suddenly the miners seem to be speaking plain good sense.

Supply and demand is such that energy markets are tightening not only in terms of prices, but so that physical supply can no longer be taken for granted. As North Sea resources run out, our government needs to think seriously how to secure energy supplies in the long term. For now, neither Westminster nor Brussels has more than a fig leaf for an energy strategy; both seem more concerned with appeasing the green lobby. So with hundreds of years’ worth of coal reserves sitting in the ground, last year Britain imported 43 million tonnes of coal, according to Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, of which half came from Russia. A trifling 17 million tonnes was mined domestically.


Ken Capstick, a senior NUM official, says, ‘By 2020 we will be 90 per cent reliant on gas, 70 per cent of which will be imported. Norway can’t supply everyone, and so we’ll become more reliant on Russia. In 2006 Russia cut off Ukraine’s gas supply and in 2007 Belarus’s. The NUM thinks we should not be reliant on Russia or Iran or the Arab countries.’ I tried to find flaws in his reasoning, and failed.

Of course there are obstacles to increasing coal production and consumption. The German company E.on is building a new clean-coal power station at Kingsnorth in Kent, now under siege from crusties styling themselves the Climate Change Camp. According to Capstick, ‘India, China and the US are burning huge amounts of coal, three quarters of world consumption, and not in a clean way either. They’re pumping out huge CO2 emissions. And China and India will burn coal this way whatever happens. We’re saying we need to develop further clean-coal technology and sell it to these countries.’ As for the Kingsnorth crusties, ‘Their general view of energy is very naive. They say they are against nuclear and all fossil fuel. So how will they explain the blackouts to the people if we stop using these sources? They aren’t taking on board any serious assessment of our energy needs.’

The union still believes the state should control the means of production — as does Arthur Scargill and his Socialist Labour party. But it accepts, too, the reality that the private sector is now re-opening mines. Between them, UK Coal, Hargreaves and Powerfuel have half a dozen mines working, some of them fantastically profitable, having been closed as ‘uneconomic’ in the 1980s and 1990s. Oil has dragged up the price of gas and coal, and the smart money is on long-term growth in prices.

The 1984 strike was, of course, no more about coal than the battle of Waterloo was about Belgium. It was Margaret Thatcher’s chosen battleground for a test of strength with the unions. Given that this came just 11 years after the 1973 oil crisis, it’s hard to imagine that long-term energy security was not an issue in the Cabinet’s deliberations. Indeed, there is some irony in the Thatcher–Reagan victory over the USSR being followed by increasing energy dependence on a new, fascist Russia. Perhaps Thatcher anticipated that the mines would one day re-open as part of the churn, Marx’s ‘permanent revolution’, that makes capitalism efficient.

Either way, the people who closed the mines stopped up their shafts, making them awkward to re-open. The NUM is not likely to see its dream of public ownership, but as more mining companies scope out the pits, there are ways to nudge them into investing. One model could be the ‘salt layer’ scheme used by some oil-rich countries, which encourages companies to explore for oil. If during exploratory drilling a salt layer is discovered, it means there is little chance of recoverable oil. But the state shares the risk in order to make exploration viable: if salt is encountered, the government pays compensation. In Britain’s case the government might undertake to support coal prices should they fall below a certain level, and to leave the industry alone in good times. The resultant surge in mining investment would provide a great measure of certainty over future energy supplies. It might not please market fana-tics, or green crusties, or the commissars of Brussels, but it would keep the lights on.

The Russian state-owned Gazprom will, no doubt, happily support the huge cost of running a pipeline into the UK. As with the tremendously uneconomic Nordstream gas pipeline into Germany, whose raison d’etre is to isolate Poland, Gazprom spares no roubles when geopolitical leverage is at stake.

As for climate change issues, Capstick says, ‘The government may be shy of the environmental lobby, whipping up images of chimneys and pit wheels. Greenpeace calls clean coal a “false hope”. But if they stop Kingsnorth, they’ll go to Drax [Britain’s biggest coal-fired power station, in south Yorkshire].’ It looks very much as if a vocal minority is being allowed to write policy.

In the shadow of the invasion of Georgia and the collapse of Russia–Nato dialogue, it would be tantamount to treason to neglect our huge coal reserves and, in preference, shackle ourselves to Moscow; you only have to look at Germany, which is heavily reliant on Russian gas, and whose foreign policy, to the east at least, is neutered. To quote one of Mr Capstick’s colleagues, ‘If tha’ don’t see that, I’ll put my bollocks in Woollies’ window.’


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