All around Wales environmental activists are mobilising to push for an end to coal. From April 30th they will join hundreds of others from across Europe at Reclaim the Power’s action camp near the monstrous Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine in Merthyr Tydfil. On the very eve of Assembly elections, Reclaim the Power plan to close Ffos-y-Fran by staging a non-violent mass trespass on the site. With their bodies and banners, protesters will draw a red line across the mine, symbolising that coal crosses a red line for the climate. Participants in the camp are calling for a ban on opencast coal mining. Such a ban would make a major contribution to Wales and the UK’s statutory commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
The Reclaim the Power action is part of the international ‘Groundswell’ call to escalate climate justice actions in the wake of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, COP21. It will be one of twelve actions happening on every continent as part of a global month of action in support of a transition away from fossil fuels. On Friday 22nd April more than 170 governments signed the Paris agreement, declaring an end to the fossil fuel era and vowing to fight climate change. However, a spokesperson for Reclaim the Power in Ceredigion told the Herald, ‘There's a massive gulf between the stated aspirations of the agreement and the measures proposed to deliver them. Hence the continued need for the likes of ourselves to take collective action locally and globally against the economic powers-that-be, including corporations as well as governments, if we want to bring about climate justice.’
Environmental impact of coal
The carbon dioxide emitted when fossil fuels are burned is the main greenhouse gas driving climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels is the UK’s commitment under the 2008 Climate Change Act. The Welsh Government is similarly committed to cut emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050 and by 3% per annum. It has, though, been criticised by the Sustainability Committee for a lack of leadership in reducing Wales’ carbon footprint. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change confirmed in its 2014 report that human influence on the climate system due to carbon emissions was clear and that it had widespread negative impacts. In 2015 even the World Economic Forum admitted that climate change was the biggest threat to the global economy. Many informed scientists think that we are in the midst of a mass extinction event driven by human activity. Professor Stephen Tooth of Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences commented: ‘Human impact on the environment extends far beyond just the climate and is contributing to a host of other environmental problems that have ramifications for human societies, including habitat and biodiversity losses, water quality declines, and plastics in ocean food chains.’
As well as mitigating climate change, ending opencast coal mining would reduce the negative health impacts suffered by communities assailed by dust and noise, say the United Valleys Action Group, Reclaim the Power’s allies in south Wales. This coalition want governments to invest in renewable energy and create thousands of green jobs instead of sanctioning the continued mining and burning of coal for electricity production. According to the International Labour Organisation, ‘green jobs are decent jobs that contribute to preserve or restore the environment’. Draft plans for a sustainable transition away from coal in south Wales already exist. In its 2010 report Green Jobs in the Heads of the Valleys Friends of the Earth Cymru identified the potential to create upwards of 3,000 new jobs. In 2011 Plaid Cymru published the consultation document ‘A Greenprint for the Valleys’ which outlines a radically different economic infrastructure based on the values of cooperation, self-sufficiency and acknowledging ecological limits.
The current Conservative government has pledged to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2035 unless they employ carbon capture and storage technology. Such technology remains deeply problematic both technically and economically, however. Despite a decline in its use, coal still contributes around 30% of our energy mix. Although three were set to close this year, the UK still has twelve coal-fired power stations. If it really plans to keep its word on coal, the Conservative government appear to be relying on huge investment in nuclear power and support for shale gas fracking in order to keep the UK’s lights on. While nuclear looks increasingly uneconomic, fracking is very unpopular with the public due to health, safety and environmental concerns. Though it is cleaner than coal, shale gas is also a fossil fuel that would drive climate change.
Mid and West Wales mobilises
In the run up to the Reclaim the Power action, environmental activists in mid and west Wales ran a series of workshops. These focused on making and using the large inflatable cobblestones that have become emblematic of the climate justice movement since protests at COP21 in Paris last year. The inflatables are a twenty-first century version of cobblestones used to build barricades during the French revolution. Workshop participants learned how to use them as an innovative, playful tactic for civil disobedience.
Workshop convenor and mid-Wales resident Kara Moses is one of the group who became known as the ‘Heathrow 13’ when they stood trial last year for closing that airport. Three of the Heathrow 13 hailed from mid Wales. Through their action they sought to highlight the impact on the climate of carbon emissions from the aviation industry. As she prepared to participate in the Reclaim the Power camp, Kara told the Herald: ‘We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, which killed 300,000 people last year. Here in Wales we already see increasingly violent storms, more rain and flooding, rising sea levels and the imminent loss of coastal towns, impacting on agriculture, tourism and people’s homes.'
Freya Pryce from Borth told the Herald: ‘I’ve been inspired by learning about numerous protests against mining across the world, and want to be part of this global movement of people making a swift and necessary transition away from fossil fuels. I hope the action will support the locals’ campaign against the proposed new mine at Nant Llesg, and wider initiatives to leave fossil fuel in the ground, instead using renewable energy and land use which supports life rather than destroying it.’
Ffos-y-Fran’s ‘devastating environmental impact’
Established in 2007 under the pretext of being a land reclamation scheme, Ffos-y-Fran is the largest opencast coalmine in the UK. If it were to continue mining, it would produce 11 million tonnes of coal by 2025. When burned this would emit some 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Despite legislation decreeing a 500 metre boundary, the mine is sited just 36 metres from some homes. A local residents’ petition on the inadequate boundary and the negative health impacts of dust and noise is still under consideration by the European Parliament. Last year Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans wrote to the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee saying ‘Ffos-y-Fran has had a devastating environmental impact, primarily on the residents but also on a much wider scale considering our commitment to reducing carbon emissions.’ Ffos-y-Fran developers Miller Argent have massively reshaped the landscape, creating mountains of filthy over-burden along with a huge black hole in ground in an area that is otherwise working to reinvent itself as a centre for tourism and clean industry.
Climate Camp Cymru
In 2007 George Monbiot, then a mid-Wales resident, wrote ‘The New Coal Age’, highlighting the negative impacts that Ffos-y-Fran would have on local people’s lives and the government’s climate change policies. The article was influential and led to climate activists from mid and west Wales joining forces with a group in Merthyr Tydfil opposed to the mine on local environment grounds. The climate activists and Residents Against Ffos-y-Fran (RAFF) quickly understood and embraced each other’s campaigns. Through 2007 and 2008 they stopped work at Ffos-y-Fran on a number of occasions. By 2009 a Wales wide network, Climate Camp Cymru, was able to stage a protest camp of more than 500 people in Merthyr Tydfil. That camp was attended and supported by a number of politicians, notably Plaid Cymru’s MEP Jill Evans and AM Bethan Jenkins. Both women continue to work for an end to opencast mining in Wales both for the sake of local communities and also to help mitigate global climate change.
Nant Llesg and people power
In August last year Caerphilly Councillors rejected the advice of their planning officers and refused Miller Argent’s application for a new opencast mine adjacent to Ffos-y-Fran at Nant Llesg near Rhymney. Nant Llesg would produce some 6 million tonnes of coal and so be responsible for around 13.60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Petitioners against the mine claimed it would decimate a developing local economy based on clean air and water, breath-taking scenery and a green environment. It would also blight the daily lives of people living near to and downwind from the site. Ultimately, Nant Llesg was rejected on the grounds of visual impact despite Miller Argent’s threats of legal action against the Council. Strategically seeking to avoid publicity, Miller Argent lodged their appeal against that decision on Christmas Eve 2015. The appeal is set to come before the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) Wales later this year. In a fast moving story Miller Argent Holdings Limited, the parent company of Ffos-y-Fran operators Miller Argent (South Wales) Limited, was sold to Gwent Investments Limited in January this year. Little is known about Gwent Investments but the United Valleys Action Group fear that, should market forces and environmental campaigns force Ffos-y-Fran to close, the new operating company would not fulfil commitments to reclaim the site. Such a situation occurred in Scotland when Sottish Coal and ATH Resources went into liquidation in 2013, leaving behind deteriorating opencast sites and an escalating risk of pollution, flooding and accidents.
‘Where’s our opencast moratorium?’
AM Bethan Jenkins tabled a motion in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining in the Senedd on 22nd April 2015. In a letter to the Western Mail at that time, influential author and activist Naomi Klein wrote: ‘Wales has the possibility of opening a new chapter in its history.’ The vote passed by 30 to 16 but was rejected by the Labour government. Marking Earth Day 2016 on the first anniversary of the moratorium vote, Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, Gareth Clubb, said: ‘We had high hopes that the Welsh Government would observe the democratic will of the people of Wales as expressed in the Senedd. But instead the issue was just kicked into the long grass. Communities have had a gutsful of dirty, polluting opencast mines on their doorsteps. Taxpayers are sick of hearing of the massive costs we’ll end up paying to restore abandoned opencast mines. It’s a simple question for the Welsh Government: Where’s our opencast moratorium?’
Opencast mining in south Wales provides around 95% of the 35,000 tonnes of coal per week burned by RWE’s Aberthaw power station. Most of that coal comes from Ffos-y-Fran. Located west of Cardiff in the Vale of Glamorgan, at 1,555 Megawatts Aberthaw claims the capacity to supply around 3 million households. In January this year Aberthaw received a public subsidy of £27 million pounds to continue operating, money taken from people’s electricity bills. Reclaim the Power’s Ceredigion spokesperson said, ‘Imagine the reaction of certain British newspapers if that subsidy had been to a windfarm!’
Friends of the Earth Cymru calculate that Aberthaw costs society in Wales £950 million in environmental and health pollution every year. Just last week, the power station was the subject of a case before the European Court of Justice because it emits more than twice the legal limit of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx). NOx emissions can cause severe respiratory problems and aggravate heart disease.
As something of a bolt from the blue, on Monday (25th April) Aberthaw announced that it was downgrading its operations due to ‘challenging’ market conditions and will now only generate electricity at times of peak demand such as during winter. Though they expect that this announcement precedes full and final closure within months, Friends of the Earth Cymru claim there have been no discussion between the Welsh Government and RWE on closure plans and retraining workers.
Aberthaw also announced that it will move to burning coal from suppliers beyond Wales, which will have a knock-on effect on producers. Chris Austin of the United Valley’s Action Group has dedicated the last eight years to campaigning against opencast mines on his doorstep. Stunned by the sudden announcement, Chris said, ‘I'm always conscious that RWE may just be trying to use this as leverage for more money or dispensation from the government, but it could mean the end of opencast mining at Ffos-y-Fran and the threat of Nant Llesg!’
What the parties pledge
Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto pledges no new opencast coal mining and no fracking in Wales. With the aspiration of Wales being self-sufficient from renewable energy sources by 2035, Plaid Cymru will back tidal lagoons and set robust targets on climate change. The tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay aims to deliver 320 Megawatts, powering over 155,000 homes and saving over 236,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. A Cardiff lagoon could produce up to 2,800 Megawatts. The Green Party commit to meeting all electricity demand in Wales from renewable sources by the earlier date of 2030 and to banning fracking. Liberal Democrats promise to set a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to produce all our electricity from renewable sources by 2025. More modestly not to say vaguely, with no specific manifesto section on energy and climate change, Welsh Labour promise to take a lead in developing more renewable energy projects, supporting technologies like tidal lagoons. Labour claim they will continue their ‘unequivocal opposition to fracking’, though Keith Ross of Frack Free Wales points out the existing moratorium does not amount to a ban. Welsh Conservatives have a manifesto sub-section on environment which features a promise to halt the spread of onshore wind farms. The nation’s climate change commitments are to be met by ‘cutting carbon emissions as cheaply as possible’. Taking a madcap leap towards the abyss, UKIP would axe all of the £73 million Welsh government budget for climate change projects.
Ending coal poses tough questions for local politics too. Next year Ceredigion Council will have to address a Local Authority Divestment campaign which calls for organisations to end their financial support of the fossil fuel industry. The campaign will target the Dyfed Pension Fund which is administered by Carmarthenshire County Council on behalf of Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembroke Councils as well as Dyfed Powys Police, the Fire and Rescue Service and many colleges. Amid speculation that public sector pension funds in Wales may be amalgamated, Ceredigion Councillor Alum Williams (Plaid Cymru) told the Herald: ‘The need for pension funds to disinvest in climate-changing fossil fuels is something they should all be considering. Indeed, as time goes by, fossil fuel investment is likely to become less and less financially attractive so it makes sense to start thinking about disinvestment for economic reasons, as well as the more pressing scientific ones.’
Assembly candidates fail to respond
In advance of the Ffos-y-Fran camp, Reclaim the Power sent an email to all Assembly election candidates whom they could reach. The email is signed by Cardiff resident Jo Lane for Climate Camp Cymru and Terry Evans, the Chair of the United Valleys Action Group. Terry is one of the Merthyr Tydfil residents who live within 36 metres of Ffos-y-Fran and he is another activist who has been campaigning against opencast mining since 2007. The email to candidates asked ‘We would like to know if you would actively support an end to open-cast mining in Wales, together with a plan to create green jobs, if you are elected on 5th May’?
The Herald followed up on the email with all twelve Ceredigion and mid and West Wales Assembly candidates. We received only one reply on this vital question for our times. Elin Jones who is standing for re-election as Assembly Member for Ceredigion wrote, ‘Plaid Cymru is committed to opposing new opencast mining, and to taking robust action to ensure that companies involved in existing operations meet their obligations to their communities. The era of Wales’s economy being geared to taking natural resources out of the ground belongs in the past. We have huge potential to become a world leader in green technology such as tidal energy and micro-generation, which would create good jobs and help farm incomes.’
Carry on camping!
Mid-Wales resident, Angharad Penrhyn Jones, author and editor of Here We Stand: Women changing the world, took part in the camp in 2009. Supporting Reclaim the Power’s 2016 action, Angharad told the Herald, ‘There is no future in coal, the filthiest fossil fuel known to mankind. It's time for the Welsh and UK governments to wake up to the climate crisis and to recognise the enormous potential that renewables offer, both in terms of clean energy and long-term, sustainable jobs. We should no longer allow multinational corporations and governments to treat Wales and the planet with such contempt, and should turn towards community-owned renewable energy schemes, for all our sakes.’
Reclaim the Power’s spokesperson in Ceredigion said, ‘On behalf of Reclaim the Power, Climate Camp Cymru and the United Valleys Action Group, I would like to extend an invitation to all Herald readers to join us at the family-friendly camp this weekend, to participate in the mass trespass on Tuesday, and certainly to lobby your new democratic representatives in the Assembly to press for an end to coal in Wales and the world.’