This weekend activists are attempting to close down Kingsnorth power station, protesting against government plans to build a new coal-fired power station at the site in Kent.
This is just one of many anti-coal protests around the country, as public feeling against coal mining and coal burning is mounting. Simultaneously, the industry has plans to open many new mines, and the government is deciding whether to give the go-ahead to seven or eight new coal-fired power stations, the first for 30 years.
Yet concerned climate scientists argue that leaving coal in the ground is the best form of carbon capture and storage - the planet just cannot survive that much more CO2 put into the atmosphere. The burning of coal for electricity and heating, the logic goes, is far easier to halt and to replace than is the use of oil for transportation.
Coal is primarily used for electricity generation, which is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Of all power stations, coal-fired ones are most CO2 intensive.
Today, globally, burning coal is responsible for around one quarter of our global CO2 emissions. And currently, approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the Earth's atmosphere every second due to human activity. But around half of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, due to us, is from burning coal. The majority of this came from Western developed nations who industrialised before China and other emerging indistrialised powers.
This is why developing economies like China and India argue, in the current round of climate control talks, that as today's climate change is due to our historical emissions, developed countries should curb their emissions before they do. Climate campaigners argue that if we want these countries to stop building new coal-fired power stations (China is opening two a week), we must set a good example.
James Hansen is described by many as the world's leading climate scientist. He first alerted Washington politicians to the dangers of climate change in June 1988 and has been an outspoken advocate of action to stop it ever since. He is the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA and adjunct professor at earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. He has called for a moratorium on building coal-fired power plants and for a 350ppm target for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Currently it is 385ppm.)
"It's very difficult to see how we can prevent the oil from being used and the carbon getting in to the atmosphere because it comes from vehicles, but in the case of coal if we're going to use that, we could restrict it to power-plants and we should say it can only be used there if you capture the CO2," he says. He argues that it's easier to make electricity and heat buildings with other sources of energy than coal, than it is to find alternatives to the fossil fuels which power our vehicles. Therefore we should do this first. "I think it's a better way than saying let's reduce CO2 80% or 90% or 60% or any particular number because we really can't let 40% or 20% of the coal to continue to be used; that's the one source that we really need to cut off."
Hansen has written to Gordon Brown requesting that the Government doesn't build any new coal fired power plants without carbon capture and storage. "Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air," he wrote. "Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use." We don't know if Brown replied. Source.
In June Hansen on Monday told listeners on Capitol Hill, Washington, that the heads of oil and coal companies who knowingly delayed action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions were committing a crime. “These CEO’s, these captains of industry,” he said in the briefing, “if they don’t change their tactics they’re guilty of crimes against humanity and nature.” He compared cordons of coal cars heading to power plants to the death trains of the Holocaust (because of the mass extinctions foreseen by many biologists should warming go unabated).
Hansen said in an interview in March: "I would say within a decade or so, that these coal plants are simply not compatible with keeping a planet resembling the one in which civilisation developed. And I think there is going to be eventually pressure to in effect bulldoze those plants, so economically they just don't make sense. You are not going to be able to leave them there 50 years."
Hanen argues that we will have to "restore the point of energy balance because as it stands now we will lose the Arctic sea ice without any more greenhouse gases, as there is additional warming in the pipeline. That means we would have to reduce the amount of CO2 at least to the 350ppm level, and we are already at 385. So, we've actually got to go backwards and it's really too bad that we didn't realise this earlier."
Does Hansen believe it's possible to reverse the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere?
"Yes, yes, it's still possible. If we get on the stick very promptly, it's still practical to do that in ways that are quite natural. The most important thing is to have a moratorium on new coal fired power plants that don't capture CO2 and then to phase out the dirty coal use over the next 2-3 decades.
If we do that, you know that the system does still take up CO2, the ocean and the soils and things, so that other things being equal, CO2 would only go up to a bit more than 400 if we phase out coal use. But then we have got to take at least 50ppm out of the atmosphere, and that is possible with improved agricultural and forestry practices, things that we have not being paying much attention to."
Britain's coal resources
The coal industry estimates there are 45 billion tonnes of recoverable UK coal reserves, which at current rates would last us 300 years. This represents around 150 billion tonnes of CO2. The industry says new mines are in development because it is becoming more cost-effective to mine rather than import, which currently costs Britain around £3 billion a year.
But just-released government energy statistics show that coal consumption fell by just under 7% in 2007, with an 8.5% decrease in consumption by the major power producers (consumers of 81% of total coal demand). Electricity supplied from coal in 2007, actually fell from 37% in 2006 to 34% in 2007. Burning coal at home only uses 1% of coal.
The only reason the government wants to burn more coal is to reduce the demand for imported gas and replace currently offline or closing nuclear power stations. But it should invest in renewables, the power of the future, instead.
The government's BERR and coal supporters talk about using ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) at coal-fired power stations as a solution to climate change. This technology does not yet exist and the industry itself says it won't be ready for at least 10 years. It is also likely to be highly expensive. In America the Bush administration withdrew its support for the FutureGen CCS project in February for this reason. Despite this, the government is now deciding whether to allow seven or eight new coal fired power stations.
Opencast coal mining
Where will the coal come from? There are 17 opencast mines in the UK now, with a staggering 25 in planning or proposed (see table below).
Opencast coal mining recovers over 90% of the coal deposit, more than deep mining but leaves a huge scar on the landscape. Soil and rock are first broken up by drilling and blasting with explosives then removed by draglines or by power shovels and trucks. With the coal seam exposed, it is also drilled and blasted. Large trucks or conveyors then take it to where it will be used. These activities have the following effects on local communities, notwithstanding the climate damage:
- Noise, such as blasting and vehicle movements
- Dust and dirt
- Health problems: respiratory, eye and skin conditions
- Traffic congestion
- Adverse visual impact and change to local landscape
- Long term environmental damage
- Reduced investment and lowering of property values
- Loss of local countryside for recreation.
Elsewhere, protestors have occupied Prospect Farm off Bell Lane, Smalley, Derbyshire, site of a proposed open cast mine and occupied by activists since June 2008. They were evicted on August 7.
If Britain is serious about climate change, it cannot sanction new coal mines and power stations.
Opencast coal mining sites in England and Wales: Currently producing:
|Celtic Energy Ltd||Margam Opencast||Bridgend, S Wales|
|Celtic Energy Ltd||Nant Helen Extension||Powys|
|Celtic Energy Ltd||Selar||Neath, Port Talbot, S wales|
|Dynant Fach Colliery Company||Dynant Fawr||Carmarthenshire|
|Energybuild Ltd||Nant-y-Mynydd||Neath, Port Talbot, S wales|
|H J Banks Developments||Delhi Site||Northumberland|
|H J Banks Developments||Shotton Surface Mine||Northumberland|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Cutacre||Bolton|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Lodge House||Derbyshire|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Long Moor||Leicestershire|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Maidens Hall Extension||Northumberland|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Oxcroft||Derbyshire|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Sharlston||West Yorkshire|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Stobswood||Northumberland|
|Minerals (UK) Ltd||Bwlch Ffos||Neath, Port Talbot|
|Ward Brothers||Prestwick Pit||Northumberland|
|Miller Argent||Ffos-y-Fran||Mid-Glamorgan, Wales|
Opencast sites proposed/in planning process in England and Wales
|Bryn Bach Coal Ltd||Cwn Yr Onen Colliery Reclamation||Carmarthenshire|
|Celtic Energy Ltd||East Pit East revised||Neath, Port Talbot, S wales|
|Celtic Energy Ltd||Margam Extension||Bridgend, S Wales||Planning applied for Oct 2007|
|Draeth Mining||Pentre Mawr||Carmarthenshire|
|H J Banks Developments||Alcan Farms||Northumberland||planning put in Oct 2007|
|H J Banks Developments||Brenkley||Northumberland|
|H J Banks Developments||Cavil Head||Northumberland||planning put in Oct 2007|
|H J Banks Developments||Houndalee, nr Widdrington||Northumberland||Planning put in Oct 2007|
|H J Banks Developments||Newton Lane Surface Mine||Leeds|
|H J Banks Developments||The Cockles, nr Ulgham||Northumberland||Planning put in Oct 2007|
|Hall Construction Services Ltd||Skons Park, Burnopfield||Gateshead, Newcastle||Planning rejected 2007. New submission expected|
|Parkhill Estates Ltd||Caughley Quarry||Shropshire|
|Shires Development Ltd||Corporal Lane Quarry||Calderdale, yorks|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Bradley||County Durham||Planning expected April 2008|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Butterwell, nr Ulgham||Northumberland||Planning expected 2008|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Chesterfield Canal||Derbyshire||Planning expected 2008|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Highthorn, nr Widdrington||Northumberland||planning submitted Oct 07|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Huntington Lane||Telford,Shropshire||Planning expected 2008|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Minorca||Leicestershire||Planning expected 2008|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Park Wall North||County Durham|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Potland Burn||Northumberland|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Steadsburn||Northumberland|
|UK Coal Mining Ltd||Whittonstall, nr Consett||Northumberland||planning submitted Oct 07|
|UK Coal PLC||Temple Quarry||Kirklees, yorks|