Monday, January 16, 2012

The case of the missing carbon emissions

The Ffos-Y-Fran opencast coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil before Welsh rules banned coal quarries near housing. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty

Little did I realise when I wrote last September that an "opencast mine could come to your back yard - and there is little you can do about it", that it would happen in my own back yard!

I have moved recently to a village in Carmarthenshire, where my fiancée lives, and discovered last December that a planning application for an open cast mine in this very village was going through the planning department.

The first we heard about it was on the day of the planning committee meeting at which the application was to be determined, and we had no time to put in an objection. So much for public consultation.

The application is for 330,000 tonnes of material to be removed over 5.4 years from a greenfield site, very near to peoples' homes, by Bryn Bach Coal Ltd. of nearby Ammanford, from which 92,500 tonnes of anthracite will be sold to a brick maker.

The planning officer had already recommended it for approval.

I do not believe the decision has been made correctly and I am continuing to object to it, on several grounds, which are discussed briefly below.

But the most serious issue I've come to realise is that there exists a gap in climate change policy that allows certain emissions to escape anyone's responsibility.

The orphan carbon emissions

The Climate Change Strategy for Wales stipulates the following targets:
  1. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per year from 2011 in areas of devolved competence, against a baseline of average emissions between 2006-10
  2. To achieve at least a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Wales by 2020 against a 1990 baseline
  3. The 3% target will include all ‘direct’ greenhouse gas emissions in Wales except those from heavy industry and power generation, but including emissions from electricity use in Wales by end-user.

It is unclear whether or not open cast coal mining is included under "emissions from heavy industry and power generation".

Emissions from "heavy industry and power generation" are excluded because their emissions are already catered for by the Climate Change Levy (CCL).

The applicants for this proposal have explicitly said that the customers for the anthracite they will extract, a brick-making kiln, are not covered by the CCL.

The Planning Officer actually misunderstood this to mean that he did not have to address the climate change aspects of the application's objectors!

This last ludicrous incident aside, this raises the wider question of who, in planning law, has responsibility for the emissions that will result from the extraction of fossil fuels if they are not burnt by end users covered by the CCL?

The answer appears to be: no one.

As I wrote last month, the UK's greenhouse gas emissions are increasing as a result of burning more coal.

Wales is supposed to have put sustainable development at the heart of every planning decision taken in the principality. This should mean, accounting for climate change.

The emissions resulting from open cast mining like this must be taken into account in Wales by planners, since they certainly won't be in any England-based planning decision but affect total UK emissions.

Carmarthenshire Council would be taking a brave stance if it were to do so and refuse the application. Unfortunately, this is unlikely since it has been voted the runner up in the 2011 Private Eye rotten borough awards (unless it wanted to redeem itself)!

Be that as it may, Welsh and UK legal advice certainly needs to be clearer on the matter of the extraction of hydrocarbons, a tough call in a nation emotionally still wedded to coal mining.

Planners need to be able to take into account the end use of the material to be extracted when deciding whether to grant permission for a coal-mining proposal to proceed, i.e., whether the emissions resulting will be accounted for so that attempts will be made to reduce them.

The 500 metre buffer zone

Moving on briefly to other objections, in Wales, unlike England, there is allegedly a stipulation that there should be a 500 metre buffer zone around such workings.

I say allegedly, because the Minerals Technical Advice Note 2: Coal (known as MTAN2) is controversial and open to interpretation.

Some authorities do uphold the 500m rule, others, particularly in former coal mining areas of Wales, too frequently find an excuse to ignore it, because several exceptions are allowable.

The closest properties to the mine are approximately 140m to the east of the site boundary and 250m from the limit of excavation.

In this case, the specific exception criteria noted by the planning officer is "where topography, natural features such as woodland, or existing development, would significantly and demonstrably mitigate impacts".

Yet a casual visit to the site shows that it is fairly flat, open, and relatively high, exposed to the prevailing wind, that would cause dust and noise easily to travel over this terrain to the nearby properties.

Planners have presented no evidence in support of their allowed exception.

Carbon neutralising open cast mining

Para 225 of MTAN2 also says that the planners must require the developer to make their operations carbon neutral.

Again, Carmarthenshire County Council planners have not presented any evidence that they have calculated the carbon impact of the operation and what should be done to neutralise it.

Instead, they have assumed that planting 1.8ha of trees, after the mine is closed, will be sufficient, a calculation based on the unsubstantiated evidence in MTAN2's paragraph 225 itself, a figure very different from that obtained using Forestry Commission figures of 5.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide absorbed by forests per hectare per year and assuming the trees are harvested and stored at their peak growth to sequester this CO2 after 30 years.

Notwithstanding the widespread criticism of using tree-planting to carbon-neutralise emissions in the first place, a widely deprecated practice.

Open cast mining is responsible for more than half of all coal extracted in the UK.

An attempt to include provisions to limit it in the Localism Act were over-ruled.

MP Andrew Bridgen's Private Members' Bill Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) still has had no time allocated to it for its Second Reading.

Will any MP or Assembly Member take this up?

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