During the last week of last year the last deep coal mine in Britain closed with barely a murmur in the media. 400 miners lost their jobs but at its peak during WWI the industry had over 1000 collieries employing 1,250,000 miners breadwinners for probably close to ,250,000 wives and certainly more than 2,500,000 children. Add in the dependent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers made the industry a major force in the UK economy. They even had their own villages and townships.
After WWII the mining industry was nationalised by the reforming Labour Government under Clement Attlee. For many years there was an understanding between the NCB (National Coal Board) and the NUM (National Union of Miners) that mines still having reserves would not be closed even if coal was produced at a loss. In 1973 the importation of cheap coal led to a work to rule strike which the union essentially won. In 1981 another conservative government now under Margaret Thatcher reversed the policy of subsidised coal and announced the impending closure of 23 pits which were losing over £3 for every tonne hauled out. Discussions failed and by 1983 a national strike was called by the NUM under Arthur Scargill. The strike was reckoned by the BBC to be the most bitter industrial dispute in British history and the biggest since the 1926 General Strike. Having learned from the failure of Edward Heath, Mrs Thatcher prepared for her NUM battle by stock piling vast quantities of coal at the power stations and hung on for the year it took to wear the miners down.
This last pit (Kellingley) did not run out of coal and neither did the UK. Despite major mining occurring since the Industrial Revolution there is still more coal left under the ground in Britain than was ever extracted. The cause was purely economic – imported coal is cheaper. Climate change may seem an important factor at international conferences but it is largely ineffectual – coal mining is still expanding world-wide and the UK still produces a third of its electricity from coal much of it from Australia.
Many people query how “taking coals to Newcastle” can be cheaper when Australia is some 10,000 miles away? The answer is geological. Typical UK seams are 1000 feet underground and only a couple of feet thick. The hewers working on their hands and knees may load the folk singers 16 tons during his shift. In Australia the coal is at the surface often 100 foot thick and mechanical shovels grab the mystical 16 tons at every bite, every 5 minutes, every hour and every day. With these downsides the death of deep coal mining was inevitable as it is over Northern Europe. China is the world mining leader both in production and consumption but has a Government who can ignore both the economic costs and the human cost of over 2000 deaths annually.
Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani’s classic quote was “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone.” He was in fact referring to fossil fuels. People simply move onto different and better alternatives. The same that has happened to coal in the UK will happen to oil and gas. Already an over production of petroleum has forced major cut backs in the expensive exploitation of shale oil and off shore reservoirs. This we have noted off shore Balearics where economics weighed more environmental concerns. Like almost all ex-coal miners I’m glad this dirty, dangerous and unhealthy industry has closed down in Britain with the only underground coal mine left a museum.