More coal won’t fix the UK’s energy crisis

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, plans to expand a coal mine in South Wales are being touted as a way to solve Britain’s energy woes.

Credit: Extinction Rebellion Cyrmu -
An anti-coal demonstration in front of the Welsh Parliament building, the Senedd.

It is difficult to picture 42 million tonnes of coal. It’s the same weight as nearly two million of the type of JCB diggers that would load that coal onto HGVs and trains. This is the amount that, in January 2022, the UK’s Coal Authority licensed for extraction from the Aberpergwm deep coal mine in South Wales. The decision came just months after an International Energy Agency report made it clear that there must be no new coal mining in Britain, or anywhere, if we are to meet the target of bringing global CO2 emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050 – and be in with a chance of stopping the worst impacts of climate change.

If the massive expansion to the Aberpergwm coal mine goes ahead, it will produce around 100 million tonnes of CO2 and up to 1.17 million tonnes of methane (both potent greenhouse gasses), and operate up to 2039. Beyond this, it will broadcast that the UK remains open to new coal mining, potentially spurring on the three other coal companies which have submitted applications for more mining in South Wales, Cumbria, and Lochinvar. Internationally, it will signal that commitments made at COP26 can be broken merely months after the media spotlight has moved on, and endanger the negotiations that Alok Sharma – the UK politician who is currently serving as President for COP26 – will be brokering this year as he tries to get countries to commit to the ‘phase-down’ of coal. Therefore, the consequences of the Aberpergwm coal mine expansion are potentially massive – and must be prevented.

See you in court

In response to the perilous possibility of the Aberpergwm coal mine expansion, thousands of people have written to the UK and Welsh Governments, concerned and incredulous – particularly as the Welsh Government has relatively strong policies against new coal. So, how could this have happened? The answer is two-fold: First, the Coal Authority has publicly stated that it cannot reject a coal mine application on any grounds beyond a narrow set of criteria outlined in the 1994 Coal Industry Act – which does not include climate commitments or impacts. Second, the Welsh Government claims it does not possess the power under the Wales Act 2017 to legally stop the Aberpergwm coal mine expansion.

If the massive expansion to the Aberpergwm coal mine goes ahead, it will signal that commitments made at COP26 can be broken merely months after the media spotlight has moved on

However, Richard Buxton Solicitors and barrister Estelle Dehon, representing Coal Action Network, dispute both claims and have lodged an application to launch a judicial review challenging the basis for both decisions in court. A win on either argument would set a precedent that could close the door once and for all on coal mining in the UK. Coal Action Network has launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign to raise the £65,000 ($85,500) needed to take both the Coal Authority and the Welsh Government to court.

The judicial review court battle between the grassroots group Coal Action Network on one hand, and both the Government of Wales and the Coal Authority on the other, is likely to take months. As the Aberpergwm coal mine expansion hangs in the balance, there are many with a political or financial stake who will be watching closely. This may determine what comes next – a new wave of fossil fuel support or the historic end of UK coal mining, after 475 years.

The stakes have been raised following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rapidly shifting public and political positions on the UK’s production and use of coal. Responses from the public to the legal action against the Aberpergwm coal mine expansion have been largely supportive, but there are people who believe that more coal mining will help Britain regain independence from Russian energy supplies. This backlash centres around two points — first, that payments for Russian coal will finance Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, second, that consumer price hikes are the result of sanctions creating instability in the supply markets for coal.

If this goes unchallenged, it would reverse hard-won progress on a transition away from coal mining and use

A renaissance of mining coal in the UK is not an alternative to Russian coal. Practically, the licencing process to open a new coal mine can take several years, with more years to start producing saleable coal. By that time the political landscape is likely to look very different. In terms of climate change, the idea that what we mine in the UK will displace what is mined in Russia is an economic myth. According to Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environment Policy at University College London, opening new coal mines rather adds to the global supply of coal, spurring increases in consumption. So instead of creating independence, industries continue to rely on, and are ‘locked into’, coal.

The coal produced through the Aberpergwm expansion would be of a type not often used for generating electricity. According to the mining company, most of the coal would be burned in Port Talbot steelworks and used for household heating. This type of coal has been largely imported from Europe with only 13 per cent on average from Russia over the past few years.

The energy price hikes in the UK predate the Russian invasion of Ukraine and there are many causes, including low investment in renewable energy. Long-term, the only way the UK will build energy independence and lower energy prices is by switching the investment, subsidies, and political support from fossil fuels to renewable energy, as well as considering how we can consume less.

Nevertheless, there is a real risk that renewed public and political support for coal could encourage more licences like the one to expand Aberpergwm. If this goes unchallenged, it would reverse hard-won progress on the rapid transition we need from coal mining and use. As António Guterres, Secretary General to the United Nations, tweeted in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: ‘Instead of slowing down decarbonization, now is the time to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy future’.

Help Coal Action Network raise the funds needed to stop the Aberpergwm coal mine extension. Find out more here.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously cited Paul Elkins as an LSE professor. This has been amended to reflect his position as Professor of Resources and Environment Policy at University College London.