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‘Not the future we should be going for’: the reopening of Wales’s Aberpergwm coalmine | fossil fuels

Nestled beneath waterfall country in the south western tip of the Brecon Beacons national park, the town of Glynneath is perfectly positioned to exploit the visitors drawn to the beauty of the landscape.

It is as Jacob Rees-Mogg said in the House of Commons, our green and pleasant land. But a powerful group of Tory MPs pushing back against the need to pivot away from fossil fuels to meet the UK’s net zero targets believe it should play host not to a future involving clean air, renewable energy and sympathetic tourism but to the revival of the coal industry.

As energy prices soar, and Russia’s war in Ukraine forces many countries to review their energy supplies, politicians in the net zero scrutiny group are embarked upon a battle with the party and the wider public over the climate crisis. They call for cuts to green taxes, a return to fracking and an increase in fossil fuel extraction; despite evidence that the scrapping of climate policies over the last decade has raised UK energy bills by £2.5bn.

The latest focal point is a colliery which sits at the western edge of Glynneath, off the A465.

Rees Mogg’s rallying call to continue to dig for anthracite – hard coal – at the Aberpergwm colliery was granted when the Coal Authority, which sits within the UK government, agreed to extend the license to its owners EnergyBuild Mining Ltd to allow it to extract up to 40m tonnes of coal over the next 18 years. Most of it will be used at Port Talbot steelworks, which has been identified by the Welsh government as an area it must address to cut carbon emissions.

Opencast anthracite coal mining pits are seen from a hilltop. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Welsh government says it was powerless to intervene because the conditional license to the company preceded new devolution powers that came into force in 2018. The license was granted just weeks after Boris Johnson hosted the Cop26 climate conference and called on other countries to “consign coal tohistory”.

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Local activist Dai Richards says the area is in need of regeneration: “The focus, I believe, should be on creating jobs for tourism and driving the focus for the area towards this growing industry.”

“We probably have the best collection of accessible waterfalls in the UK on our doorstep, we are on the edge of the Brecon Beacons which is rising in popularity as a holiday destination. There is a new zipline just opened a couple of miles away … It’s a tourism revolution bypassing Glynneath because politicians and civil servants alike are too small minded to see beyond the rape of the land and the pollution of the world for greed and profit.”

Aside from local pollution concerns, the impact of the new Aberpergwm scheme on the UK’s commitment to net zero could be devastating. If burned, it is estimated the coal could emit more than 100m tonnes of COtwo over the mine’s lifetime.

But there is some strong support for the extension of the mine from those living around it. Local councillors – all of whom are on the mine’s liaison committee with the community – are swayed more by what they say is the need to save jobs. The colliery employs 160 people, including 16 apprentices, and the company promises it is diversifying the uses of the anthracite.

Del Morgan, Plaid Cymru councilor for the town council, said he had to protect jobs in his community. “What I am being told by the company is there are opportunities for the mine to evolve fairly rapidly from the old way to use the anthracite in clean industries. They are doing so already. There are 160 jobs there, and if you take the license away and close the mine they will go. This is needed.”

Glynneath Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/The Guardian

Most of the coal will be destined for Port Talbot steelworks, which produces 15% of Wales’s carbon emissions. Another 20% will go to domestic heating.

Whatever the uses of the coal in future, the extraction itself would produce up to 1.17m tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to research by Global Energy Monitor.

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For some, the tradeoff of the climate in favor of jobs is not one worth making. Alyn Evans spent decades working at Aberpergwm, which was closed in 1985 by the National Coal Board, and reopened in 2011, before closing again and reopening in 2018. “This claim that there will be local jobs is one of the main reasons I am fighting against this mine,” said Evans, who is now in his seventies. “I would say there are probably about less than 10 local people working in the underground jobs.

“There are no local miners any more, they are all dead or too old. No one wants to work the shifts now, it is a myth that this mine will provide large numbers of local jobs.“

Instead, he said, the reality was that Glynneath would be subjected once more to pollution, the coalmine at the bottom of the town would remain an “eyesore” and an obstacle to developing tourism, while the wider environment would be subjected to more climate- heating greenhouse gases.

“For every cubic meter of anthracite coalmined, 42 cubic meters of methane is released, probably the most toxic gas in the atmosphere, and they have been given a license to extract 40m tonnes of it. This is not the future we should be going for,” he said.

Another local resident, Emma Eynon, said as a traditional mining community it was right to celebrate “our proud history”, but that what was needed now was investment in a new future. “The communities in my local area have been suffering for many years with a lack of investment by the Welsh government,” said Ella Eynon.

“Our communities are desperate for real investment and support… we want to move forward with tourism, small business growth and local regeneration plans which will mean real jobs with real futures.”

Energybuild has said the Aberpergwm project would sustain 160 jobs and dozens more in the supply chain. It has promised to gradually move away from supplying steelworks at Port Talbot and said it aims to have a greater share of its coal destined for other end uses such as water filtration, which at present accounts for about 15% of its market. The firm says it is the only producer of anthracite for filter media in Europe.

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The granting of the license now faces a legal challenge by campaign group Coal Action Network, which successfully fought against opencast mines in the north-east of England. Coal Action Network said other mining companies would be watching the Aberpergwm project closely, warning it could spark a disastrous new wave of coal mining applications. A decision is expected soon on plans for the first new deep coalmine in the UK for 30 years in Cumbria.

Isobel Tarr, of Coal Action Network, said: “This is a time to be investing in alternative technologies for producing steel and it is well past the time to be investing in something better for these communities who have a vision for post-coal. The Welsh government must listen if it is to commit to leaving coal in the past.”

Energybuild was contacted by the Guardian but did not provide a comment.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that we do not support the extraction of fossil fuels and are focused on the climate emergency. We do not have the powers to make a decision in the case of Aberpergwm. This license pre-dates our powers on coal licensing.

“The fundamental issue is having a Coal Authority whose duty is to maintain a coal mining industry in the UK. We have been calling for the UK government to change this duty in the Coal Industry Act to reflect the climate emergency.”

This article was amended on 19 March 2022 to correct a picture caption: in an earlier version we mislabelled the street scene in Glynneath as showing Aberpergwm.

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