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Does the UK have all the coal reserves it needs?

17 May 2019

Does the UK have all the coal reserves it needs?

The UK does not need any more coal mines.

That's the clear message from environmental campaigners this week, after new analysis revealed the UK's coal phase-out plans negate the need for any extra supply.

Without coal-fired power, there's no need to build for the UK any new coal mines, NGOs and climate policy experts insist, this week urging Communities Secretary James Brokenshire to reject planning permission for an opencast coal mine on a famed stretch of the Northumbrian coast.

They say the UK already has sufficient stockpiled coal to fuel power stations until 2025, when the government has pledged to end unabated coal power.

Plans to open a new coal mine in Druridge Bay were originally recommended for approval by a planning inspector in 2017. They were met with fierce local opposition, and the application was rejected by Brokenshire's predecessor Sajid Javid in 2018, citing concerns over its contribution to climate change.

However, the High Court overturned the initial ruling late last year, returning the decision to now-Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.

Developer Banks Mining has long argued the new project is justified and will help meet on-going demand for coal that would otherwise be met by overseas mines.

Speaking following Javid's original decision, Gavin Styles, managing director at Banks Mining, said "we fully recognise and accept that there needs to be a stable transition to a low carbon economy...but there will remain a clear and recognised need for coal during this phase out period".

However, campaign group Friends of the Earth this week released an analysis of official government figures published in April that suggests the amount of electricity the UK will need from coal between 2020 and 2025 negates the case for any new mine.

The group says the new figures show a 90 per cent decline in the projected electricity generation from coal compared to a similar forecast in 2017. Consequently, it argues, there is more than enough coal already stockpiled at existing power stations to see the UK through until 2025, when the last of the country's coal plants are expected to close.

"James Brokenshire must reject the Druridge Bay planning application and protect this wildlife-rich, beauty spot from devastation," said Friends of the Earth climate and energy campaigner Tony Bosworth. "Power stations already have enough stock-piled coal to last until they close down in 2025, so giving new climate-wrecking coal mines the green light would be ludicrous."

Josh Burke, a policy fellow at the LSE's Grantham Institute on Climate Change, confirmed projected coal power use through to 2025 has slumped in the past two years.

He told BusinessGreen a decision to approve the mine would "make a mockery" of government claims it is tackling the climate crisis. "The decision on whether to allow a new coal mine to open at Druridge Bay presents an acid test for the government on its commitment to make hard decisions to meet its climate change targets," he said. "Approving planning permission so soon after the Climate Change Committee published its report would risk making a mockery of the government's ambitious rhetoric on achieving net-zero emissions. Nor would this be an answer to the need for job creation, since it would not provide long-term job security.

"Instead the government should establish a comprehensive plan to equip communities that are reliant on the coal industry with new jobs and new skills that provide a long-term future while coal is phased out."

Friends of the Earth has also called on the Communities Secretery to revoke the planning permission granted to the Bradley opencast mine, operated by the same company behind the Druridge Bay proposal, where operations started last summer. A judicial review brought by local residents against the project is currently under consideration by Brokenshire.

Responding to criticism of its coal mining projects, Banks Group's environment and community director Mark Dowdall argued analysis such as Friends of the Earth's fails to account for the fact that the UK needs coal for many other uses than just power for the National Grid.

"We are already working successfully within the framework set by Government to phase unabated coal out of the electricity generating system by 2025," Dowdall told BusinessGreen. "However, the undeniable fact remains that the UK still needs coal for a range of other essential industrial uses, such as steel, cement and food production and heritage railways, and an increasing shortfall in domestic supply has meant that this need has had to increasingly be met through coal imports from distant locations such as the US, Colombia and most especially Russia."

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to comment on the issue, as the Druridge Bay application remains under consideration by the Secretary of State.

Electricity generated from coal fell 88 per cent between 2012 and 2018, and now only commands a tiny fraction of the electricity mix on most days. The first week of May was the UK's first coal-free week since 1882, according to the ESO.

The government aims to phase out unabated coal-fired power generation altogether by 2025, replacing the most polluting fossil fuel with a greater reliance on renewables backed by nuclear energy.  

Beyond 2025, the Committee on Climate Change has called for the government to adopt a legally binding goal to make the UK a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, a vision that would require a huge boost in renewable electricity production as well as an earlier phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars.

However, a report published today by the International Energy Agency revealed global investment in coal mining in 2018 rose by 2.6 per cent compared with 2017 - the first annual increase since 2012. Meanwhile, the handful of companies proposing new mining developments in the UK maintain demand for coal for both power generation and, more importantly, industrial processes, is set to continue for long enough for them to justify investment in new mines.

It remains to be seen whether Brokenshire will buy their argument, or conclude that a country committed to phasing out coal power should leave its own coal supplies in the ground.

Article & image source - BusinessGreen

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