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Aberthaw power station and adjacent cement works rise above the South Wales countryside. Photo: Ben Salter via Flickr (CC BY).
Aberthaw power station and adjacent cement works rise above the South Wales countryside. Photo: Ben Salter via Flickr (CC BY).
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From pit mines to power plants, Wales must lead the UK out of coal

Gareth Clubb / FoE Cymru.

29th February 2016

Wales should lead the UK in bringing an end to the entire coal industry from opencast mining to highly polluting power stations, writes Gareth Clubb. A new report by Friends of the Earth Cymru shows the Aberthaw plant alone imposes social and environmental costs of nearly £1 billion per year on the country and global climate.

Not only does Aberthaw drive the gruesome, polluting, community-destroying opencast industry. Its environmental and health externalities are in the region of £1 billion a year. The power station is Europe's third-largest point source of nitrogen oxides.

Climate campaigners have sensed a turning point in the fortunes of coal. A rash of coal-fired power station closures have been announced on the back of tumbling electricity prices.

Coal executives are haunted by a global glut of coal, collapsing prices (and profits) and multiple bankruptcies of coal companies.

And to top it all, that announcement: cessation of unabated coal generation by 2025.

So why are our communities still facing the looming threat of opencast applications? After all, the experience in Wales has been particularly bitter. The massive Ffos-y-Fran opencast site is just yards from the nearest dwelling.

Selar opencast site was recently mothballed (that's 'permanently closed' to you and me). Margam opencast site, abandoned unrestored, has been creating headlines with its huge water-filled void.

Aberthaw power station

In Wales, at least, the answer lies in a power station that provides a ghastly symbiosis for opencast pits. Aberthaw power station, resolutely clinging on to life, is described as the major customer for every opencast application in Wales. The power station in turn pats the backs of the opencast executives by writing letters of support for their applications.

Aberthaw - Wales' last remaining coal-fired power station - is an environmental catastrophe. Not only does it drive the gruesome, polluting, community-destroying opencast industry. Its environmental and health externalities are in the region of £1 billion per year.

A new report from Friends of the Earth Cymru describes the litany of environmental problems associated with Aberthaw. The power station is Europe's third-largest point source of nitrogen oxides. Aberthaw has casually disregarded European limits on nitrogen oxide pollution for years.

It is this failure to comply with European limits that has seen the UK Government summonsed to the European Court of Justice where it is defending its decision to allow extraordinary pollution from Aberthaw power station.

In 2013, this single power station was responsible for 17% of Wales' greenhouse gas emissions as a result of its 8.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is totally inconceivable that Wales will meet its climate target of a 40% reduction from the baseline by 2020 if Aberthaw is still operating at that level.

And Aberthaw churns out 0.6% of the UK inventory of mercury (36 kg), a substance so toxic that the Water Framework Directive requires total cessation of discharge into watercourses by 2021. The executives at RWE must be scratching their heads on how they can possibly achieve compliance.

£1 billion price tag

Most of these pollutants end up unaccounted for in the ledgers. A tiny amount of carbon tax here or there. But the social costs are astronomical.

We've calculated the health and environmental costs of pollution from Aberthaw to comprise:

  • £18 million from SO2 pollution;
  • £420 million from NOx pollution;
  • £510 million from CO2 pollution.


That's nigh on £1 billion, with no costs put forward for mercury, hazardous ash, particulates or trace pollutants.

And it doesn't take into account the social costs associated with the despoilation of communities both in Wales and far beyond our shores.

Pressure on the Welsh Government

Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones believes that "if the litigation goes against Aberthaw, it will make it more difficult for Aberthaw to operate, and that is bound to have an effect on its viability in the long term. The same is true of opencast mining, I suspect, as well, given the supply chain that exists there."

That's good news, of course. But we expect more from Welsh Government. We'd like to see a total moratorium on new opencast mines. And we're asking the Welsh Government to press Amber Rudd for early closure of Aberthaw power station.

Thus far we're hardly overwhelmed with Welsh Government activity on coal. This is a government that put so many loopholes into planning guidance that a 500m buffer zone to protect communities from opencast is routinely ignored. It hasn't even entered into correspondence with the operators of Aberthaw about the consequences of imminent closure.

And no discussion has taken place at the Welsh Cabinet about retraining of workers. When the time comes, it will be for a loss of 290 jobs unmitigated by government activity.

The new industrial revolution

The fate of coal is sealed. Sealed deep underground, where it belongs. So Wales can take a role on centre stage in climate folklore. By committing to a moratorium on opencast and the closure of Aberthaw, the birthplace of the industrial revolution can focus instead on a new industrial revolution.

A revolution where progress is measured by the growing proportion of energy coming from renewable sources, not from dirty fossil fules. Where massive investment is made in improving draughty, poorly insulated homes. And where the rhetoric of the Well-Being of Future Generations Act becomes a reality for all.

Amber Rudd is clear (even if her actual policies leave coal generators way too much wriggle room): "It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the UK to be relying on polluting, carbon intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations."

Quite so.

 


 

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru.

Twitter: @foecymrucydd.

Facebook: foecymrucydd.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Coal companies trying to revive 'zombie' open cast mines in Wales' by Guy Shrubsole.

 

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