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What did they expect?

My house backs on to a railway line which is now exclusively for passenger trains.  It wasn’t always this way though.  There was a time when the relative peace was broken six times a day by the roar of freight trains heading up the Rhymney Valley.  Their destination was the coal washery at Cwmbargoed, from where they would ferry thousands of tonnes of coal per journey to the power station in Aberthaw and the steel works in Port Talbot.  Aberthaw power station closed at the end of March 2020.  And, on 23 February this year, the last coal train made its way down the valley, taking a last load of coal to Port Talbot.  Of the three, that left Port Talbot steelworks the only one still operating… although, and not for unconnected reasons, Port Talbot’s days were also numbered.

Whether Britain should still have been mining Welsh coal rather depends upon how favourable you are to exporting your carbon emissions to someone else’s country.  After all – and despite expensive experimental attempts at hydrogen steel production – if you want to make virgin steel – for example if you had a plan to build and operate thousands of wind turbines – you have to use coal.  That being the case, the least environmentally harmful approach would be to source it from a huge deposit 25 miles away rather than shipping it thousands of miles from Brazil, China, or Kazakhstan.

This, no doubt, was why the otherwise green-leaning Blair government gave the approval for a vast opencast mine just outside Merthyr Tydfil.  As George Monbiot complained at the time:

“The diggers at Ffos-y-fran, on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, are set to excavate 1,000 acres of land to a depth of 600ft.  There has never been a hole quite like it in Britain, and our government’s climate change policies are about to fall into it.”

There was always though, a degree of NIMBYism (Not in my back yard) in the opposition to Ffos-y-Fran… and not just from the poor souls whose homes were less than 50 meters from the open pit.  Since it is unlikely that the Brazilian, Chinese, or Kazakh villagers living next to the alternative coal mines feel any happier.  But more broadly, the environmental movement has always had a nasty habit of embracing the products of coal while attempting to hide their carbon content.  The people who advised the Blair government, in contrast, at least understood that before you can decarbonise an economy you must first use carbon to produce the various manufactures – wind turbines, electricity pylons, huge volumes of concrete and reinforcing steel, and thousands of miles of cables – required to achieve it.  And since – even after Thatcher’s economic vandalism – Britain still had steel making capacity and enough domestic coal and iron to do the job, that was preferrable to outsourcing – at huge cost and no environmental benefit – the entire project to China.

The mine went ahead, and low-level protests followed.  But matters came to a head again as the original licence came to its end in September 2022.  The owners applied for a three-years and nine months extension, prompting huge opposition from environmental groups and local residents.  Aberthaw power station had closed by that stage, and so the need for coal was reduced.  On the other hand, the steelworks in Port talbot was already experiencing financial difficulties which had caused the Welsh government to step in with a package of subsidies.  Adding the additional cost of importing coal from the other side of the planet while in the middle of a global supply shock was hardly sensible if the aim was to maintain domestic steel production (although most environmental campaigners would have welcomed the end of UK steel making too).

The compromise which eventually – and somewhat inevitably – emerged was that Ffos-y-Fran would cease production in December 2023, although coal could be removed from the site until 8 January 2024.  Whether these conditions were met is a matter of dispute, since local residents claim the mine was operating in February 2024 and, as said above, the last train from the washery was on 23 February 2024.  Nevertheless, the mine has closed.  The owners have disappeared to wherever investors retire when extractive industries come to an end.  And, much to the horror of the local residents who had done so much to have the mine closed, this winter’s heavy rain has begun the process of turning it into a highly toxic lake.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.  It is what the extractive industries do.  The legacy of deep mining in Wales is the sudden and unpredictable opening up of sinkholes as the ground shifts beneath.  The legacy of opencast mining, on the other hand, is the creation of large toxic reservoirs such as the former Parc Slip pit in Bridgend, where the risk of a toxic flood threatens neighbouring nature reserves.  And both types of mining have left an ongoing risk of coal tip landslides… although thankfully on nothing like the scale seen in the twentieth century.

Officially, redevelopment of extractive sites – which also applies to oil and gas extraction in the North Sea – is “guaranteed” with a bond set aside by the owners, together with various government and council grants and subsidies to make up the difference.  This might have offered some hope back in the days when real economic growth was a thing.  Indeed, as early as 2014, a government report identified Ffos-y-Fran as a significant risk:

“Based merely on the likely cost of bulk earthmoving of those overburden mounds, and the final restoration and treatment of the surface of the 400 ha site, it is likely that the fixed bond of £15 m held by the LPA, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, falls well short of a worst case restoration cost which could be in excess of £50 m based on the collected information.”

Rehabilitation cost have soared though, as Monbiot reported last year:

“Since then, the price of coal has boomed, but the fund still stands at £15m, while the estimated cost of filling the hole and restoring the landscape has risen to between £75m and £125m. The rehabilitation was supposed to be completed by the end of next year, but there is no sign it has begun.  Far from reclaiming the land, the mine has created a much bigger problem: where the hill stood in 2007, there is now a great pit above whose sheer sides the homes of local people perch.”

With both the local council and the Welsh government facing huge budget cuts, there is little chance of public money making up the shortfall.  And so, local people will be left to ponder which was worse to live next to, a working mine or a toxic lake.

Insofar as environmentalists might claim the final closure of Ffos-y-Fran a victory, it is at best a Pyrrhic one.  The opposition Labour Party, which is on course to form the next government, has ditched its promise to provide £28bn toward the imagined energy transition.  This is likely due to the deteriorating state of the UK economy following two years of disrupted supply chains followed by two-years of self-defeating sanctions.  However, it may also reflect a growing awareness among the political class that the UK lacks the means of making that transition… a problem made far worse by the closure of Port Talbot steelworks (which would have produced the essential steel to manufacture wind turbines and pylons).

As is all too typical of establishment insiders, former Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones blamed the closure of Port Talbot steelworks on Brexit, although he gave no further explanation of how, exactly this process worked.  In fact, the steelworks has been haemorrhaging money for years, and it is only since escaping European State Aid rules that sufficient public subsidies had been available to keep the plant running.  For this reason, it would also be wrong to claim that the closure of Ffos-y-Fran was sufficient to cause the owners to close the plant last month.  On the other hand, at a time when the plant was already facing closure despite huge public subsidies, the requirement to meet the additional cost of shipping coal from thousands of miles away may well have been the straw which broke the camel’s back.

Even here though, some environmentalists are claiming a victory because of the pledge to use public funds to build a steel recycling facility on the site.  This though, ignores the growing global shortage of scrap steel, which is likely to render the plant unprofitable.  Nor, in any case, can the proposed energy transition be achieved using recycled steel alone.  Which adds the additional headache that the UK’s alternative source of virgin steel – and, indeed, of the diesel fuel needed to move it – was Russia.  And even after Russia has concluded its business in Ukraine, it is hard to see that country ever again providing the UK – and Europe in general – with cheap energy and resources in the way it had done prior to February 2022.

Zoom out and we see a story in which there are few winners – other than the mine and steelworks owners, who walked away with the profits, leaving the public to clear up the mess.  The 2,800 steelworkers and 115 miners who lost their jobs will join the growing part-occupied precariat army which has replaced the old-fashioned unemployed here in the UK.  The local residents will have cleaner air but more water pollution.  The energy transition is doomed to failure as the entire European continent has lost its ability to manufacture the necessary technology and materials.  Someone else will suffer as coal mining and steel working takes place in another part of the world instead.  And carbon emissions will rise because of the additional transport need.  

Insofar as there is any environmental gain, it is not in the bright green, hi-tech fantasy imagined by western professional-managerial class environmentalists, but from a deindustrialised and depressed Europe which will no longer be able to afford discretionary consumption… a Europe, led by the UK, indeed, in which almost everything which is today taken for granted will have crumbled to dust. 

If only we’d had a plan instead of leaving it all to the political class and the “free” market.

As you made it to the end…

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