Coal reserves: the ‘profound contradiction’

Today in the Guardian, editor Alan Rusbridger explains why his paper will concentrate on climate change for the next few weeks: he regrets “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species. So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening …”
There are two most important things we need to discuss, he says, one of which is … “how we can prevent the states and corporations which own the planet’s remaining reserves of coal, gas and oil from ever being allowed to dig most of it up. We need to keep them in the ground.”

Keep them in the ground”: whether onshore or under the sea.

In the past month, news has come in that a second company – Cluff Natural Resources – has announced it has acquired licences to extract coking coal from underneath the Solway, north of the former undersea mines such as Haig Pit. The consultants, Wardell Armstrong International (WAI) have indicated that these Workington and Maryport licences, covering part of the Cumberland Coalfield, have an ‘exploration target’ of 384-640,000,000 tonnes. WAI have used a mass of publicly accessible data on geology, coal quality, mine abandonment and so on, but further drilling and other surveys, and their funding, are still needed; for Cluff, it is still early days.

West Cumbria Mining, however, has been busy drilling in the St Bees’ and nearby areas. I’ve written about this previously in this blog, and WCM also provides interesting updates and photos – of drilling rigs and shiny coal-bearing cores – in their community updates and the ‘news’ section of their website. Mark Kirkbride, the CEO, says that “Within the three WCM licence areas it is conservatively estimated that there is around 1 billion tonnes of coking coal. Currently WCM has scoped a mine extracting 2 million tonnes of hard to semi-soft coking coal a year.” The licence areas are just South of the Haig Pit.

West Cumbria Mining, proposed extraction sites

West Cumbria Mining, proposed extraction sites (map from their website)

There are of course advantages to re-opening the Cumbrian Coalfields, Kirkbride says: “The project location has a series of compelling attributes for a new mine, not least of which is the exceptional existing infrastructure nearby. The North West coastal railway line passes through the onshore licence block and connects to the nearby Port of Workington and onwards via the UK rail network to the UK’s three main steelworks. … There is ready power available, an available workforce of both skilled and semi-skilled labour and existing manufacturing and service providers in the local area.”

As for the effect on our landscape: “… West Cumbria is attractive and combines industrial heritage with a unique coastal environment. … Whitehaven and the surrounding area sits outside the Lake District National Park, but nonetheless the environmental impact of the mine is a very significant consideration for WCM, with full environmental impact assessments being undertaken as part of the pre-feasibility study work programme.”

But look at these two quotes:

From Mark Kirkbride, CEO of WCM: “The development of this new mine would appear to fit well in terms of ongoing UK & EU steel consumption, global structural supply issues of hard coking coals and a recovery in coal prices in the medium term.”

And from Algy Cluff, CEO of Cluff International: “The global outlook for metallurgical and coking coal is predicted to remain steady with substantial upside potential on the back of decreasing supply and increased steel demand as the global economy continues to recover.”

“Business as usual”: Sir Nicholas Stern’s “profound contradiction”.

It seems clear that companies like these, even though warned by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, about a ‘carbon bubble’, are concerned only with profits and not the long-term future of “our species” – humans (either in general or in particular) or of all the other millions of species that inhabit this very special ball of rock in our galaxy.

In West Cumbria, the debates about the various forms of energy along the coast and out on the waters of the Solway Firth, and the effects – on the local environment, on the local economy, on local people – are heated. Certainly Britain’s Energy CoastTM will benefit from the creation of jobs and investment in infrastructure, that can’t be disputed.

So, as Alan Rusbridger says, “Where does this leave you? I hope not feeling impotent and fearful.”

I myself am torn. Leaving aside the effects on the local economy: on the one hand, I love the fact that records and in-depth information about the geology, the topography, the chemistry, the social history, are ‘out there’, and can be used to tell not only the past story of coal-mining in the area but also to help predict the future. It’s fascinating, and I want to know and see more.

But my other hand is more heavily weighted: I, we, the UK, the global economy, must end this dream that we can remove and burn ever more fossil fuel (even if it is for the production of steel – ‘metallurgic coal’ – rather than for power generation). Even if you dispute the indisputable, that this is not causing climate change, we cannot continue ’emptying’ our planet.

So, do we (I) now have the courage to claim the long-term view, forget the personal, and say, “Leave the coal in the ground”?

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