By Chris Fairbairn
April 6, 2017 - Our energy-intensive industries still rely on coal, even to make wind-turbine components, yet the UK relies heavily on imports. Chris Fairbairn echoes a Scottish MP's calls to look to domestic sources instead.
Coal continues to be required for steel and other vital industries, such as food production, and the manufacture of cement, patent-fuel such as smokeless briquettes, and carbon-fibre products.
In the past ten years, around 10 million tonnes of coal per annum has been needed in the UK for non-electricity generation purposes. Meanwhile around 3-15% of the UK’s electricity needs comes from coal-fired power stations. Unabated coal-fired power stations are due to come offline by 2025 under government plans. Meanwhile, the UK is a big importer of coal.
On a visit to Banks Mining’s Rusha surface mine in West Lothian earlier this year, the SNP’s House of Commons spokeswoman for small business, enterprise and innovation, Hannah Bardell, urged the rest of the UK to seek more "joined up" thinking with Scotland. She was prompted by a welcome sign of recovery in the steel industry and coal’s pivotal place on the industrial landscape.
The focus of her renewed optimism for the resurgence of the steel industry north of the border was the reopening of the Dalzell plant in Motherwell, which could throw up more opportunities for the remaining parts of the Scottish and UK coal industry.
The SNP MP for Livingston stressed the need to support the coal industry, and for UK coal to play a direct role in the continued transition towards a low-carbon economy powered by renewable energy and technologies such as carbon capture.
Bardell insisted Scotland was committed to a low-carbon economy, yet the UK continues to import coal on a vast scale. All the coal Scotland now needed, she explained, was imported from England or Wales.
"But the vast majority — around 70%, comes from much further afield; from Colombia, Russia, the USA and Australia. Similarly the UK as a whole currently imports over 70% of the coal it needs to generate electricity and manufacture iron, steel and cement et al from Colombia, Russia, the USA and Australia," she said
"It makes far greater sense to support Scottish and UK jobs, to provide a secure domestic supply of coal through mining indigenous coal reserves and delivering regional environmental and conservation enhancements, rather than relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles distant," Bardell added.
"It isn’t just traditional manufacturing that represents a market for UK mined coal: As I understand it a good proportion of the rolled steel that the Dalzell Plant in Motherwell is now producing is to be used in the manufacture of tower sections for onshore and offshore wind turbines," the MP said. "This is a very real example of how coal is a vital bridge to the low carbon economy."
The Rusha surface mine, near Breich, is operated by Hamilton-based Banks Mining. Coal extraction was suspended at Rusha in 2016 following the closure of Longannet, Scotland’s last coal-fired power station at the end of March 2016. The family firm is now restoring the Rusha site to a mix of woodland and grazing land to reflect how the land was used prior to coal extraction.
Positive news followed the postponement of coaling at Rusha in July 2016, as Banks Mining was awarded a contract by East Ayrshire Council and the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust to restore a former surface coal mine at Ponesk near Muirkirk. As a result, all staff at the Rusha site were given the opportunity to move, with opportunities to remain on site at Rusha during the various phases of the extensive restoration process.
During her visit Bardell insisted the legacy of our mining industry must be properly looked after by restoring mines and ensuring the interests of Scottish workers are protected.
This echoed the thoughts of Banks Mining operations director Jim Donnelly, who said as a family firm, continuity of employment for the workforce was very important. Since 2012 when operations on site at Rusha started, Banks Mining estimates the site has contributed more than £5m to the local economy each year, through wages and other supply chain contributions.
The Rusha Surface Coal Mine Community Fund was set up in 2012 also to support local community groups and voluntary organisations.
Restoration: Picking Up The Pieces
Political praise at another Banks’ coal mine came from Labour peer Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and two SNP members, Alan Brown and Jeane Freeman. Ponesk surface mine in East Ayrshire was abandoned in early 2013, with restoration starting in July 2016.
Landscaping and restoration of the site, designed to optimise the future use by the community, with public accessibility and the protection of wildlife habitats, was originally expected to be completed by early summer 2018. But it is now anticipated the site will be completed ahead of schedule.
Lord Foulkes said: "Following the demise of Scottish Coal, a number of surface mines sites were abandoned in East Ayrshire and elsewhere in Scotland. Some were left not only in an unattractive state, but in a dangerous one. Politicians of all sides have been very concerned about this for some years. Banks Mining is working with the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust to make safe and restore the Ponesk site."
Freeman added: "When the restoration is completed, the site will have a range of new wildlife habitats and accessible paths."