Monday, 12 October 2020

Much confusion in the reaction to the news of the UK's first new deep coalmine for 30 years

I have always felt that politicians and environmental activists seem not to realise that to attain the Paris agreement of zero carbon by 2050 will require a huge ramp up in the supply of raw materials (posting of 21 July 2019).

This is highlighted by the announcement that plans to open the UK’s first new deep coalmine in 30 years have been given the go-ahead by Councillors in Cumbria.  Unsurprisingly this has led to unthinking protests by climate campaigners, including of course Extinction Rebellion, who have argued that the new mine, which will reportedly emit 8m tonnes of carbon annually, contradicts the UK’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. The local Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron called the decision “a kick in the teeth in the fight to tackle climate change” and asked the Government to reject the application. However his application has been rejected, with the local Conservative MP Trudy Harrison saying “sense has prevailed”. The Government's housing minister will now face pressure to block the plans.

It would appear that the protesters are totally unaware that West Cumbria Mining plans to mine under the seabed to extract around 2.7m tonnes of metallurgical coal annually, which is essentially, and solely, for use within industry and not for power stations. Steel and chemical factories in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and Port Talbot are expected to utilise the mine's output, with the company arguing that the coal will replace imports and will not increase emissions because it will not be shipped over from the US, Canada, Russia and Australia. 

In expressing his dismay, Farron said that the government should “invest fully in zero-carbon energy” instead. And this is where many activists miss a very crucial point. A large wind turbine may seem very 'green' but it needs to be built, and raw materials are needed, which in themselves require large amounts of energy to produce (posting of 25 August 2019). Apart from all its other uses steel is an essential part of a turbine's construction and almost 350 tonnes are needed. The blast furnace, the first stage in the steel-making process, requires coke, produced from metallurgical coal, which is continuously fed into the furnace to provide fuel and also act as a reductant of the iron ore to pig-iron, which is then refined into steel.

In a speech given to the Conservative Party conference this month Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to make Britain the "Saudi Arabia of wind", pledging that offshore wind will produce enough electricity to power every home by 2030. This would need an offshore wind capacity of 40 gigawatts, compared with the current capacity of 10 gigawatts, and analysts have suggested that  this target would require the completion of a turbine every weekday throughout the decade- a lot of steel, as well as other raw materials.

Source: The World Bank

Interestingly at last year's Tory conference nuclear fusion was the priority and Johnson said that Britain was on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world. "I know they have been on the verge for some time,” he bumbled. “It is a pretty spacious kind of verge.” But now, he assured his audience, “we are on the verge of the verge."

And seven years ago he said that wind power "couldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding" while advocating a new form of energy which would power the UK for the foreseeable future- he was talking about shale gas!

Peter Broookes, The Times, 7 October


  1. Barry, you gave all aspects of all forms of "energy generation" in a capsule form.
    Being not an expert but familiar with the subject, let me express my thoughts in my way.
    Any of the methods mentioned need metals(to make containers)/industrial minerals (to make structures)/composites etc. So mining is "a must".
    All these methods produce either emissions and/ or waste materials--and have environmental impact in some form or other, though the degree to which may be different.
    So, for me, the main question is "have we done focused and intensive research on how to convert gases emitted or waste generated from any of these methods into useful/usable forms?
    It is a global problem and going to be more alarming as the developing countries become more "energy hungry".
    Let us document in detail on "what is the environmentally not acceptable thing we do to produce energy by any method--then come out with the most economical and acceptable method to produce energy.
    I may not have expressed well but what you have put in the BLOG is multidimensional-
    Still, MINERALS are the" backbone of development".

  2. Truth and facts, this is exactly what is needed, and it all stems from education, if we do not educate children about what enables them to have the comforts that they are lucky to have how can we ever progress and improve things.. It certainly does not help with Exeter University announcing the "pause" to the Mining Education undergraduate degree course at Camborne School of Mines where mining education has been taught for over 130 years. Despite what is said in the press mining brings a huge amount of money into the UK economy and without it we will suffer as a nation.

    1. Very true Nick, thanks. It is difficult to educate politicians, however, as they just don't listen

  3. An excellent summary Barry, thanks for keeping us up to date. One thing you didn't mention, aren't Wind Turbine blades made from un-recyclable polymer composites? Offshore wind also has the difficulties of construction and access for maintenance. I'm not convinced there's a good economic case.
    Sam Wood

    1. Good points Sam. Yes, I believe you are right regarding difficulties in recycling the blades

  4. I would like to differ with you Barry; Academies related to GEOENGINEERING (starting from exploration to mining to processing to extraction to environment) have failed to educate the politicians with sound reasons/alternatives available --scientists and engineers belonging to earth sciences are more busy with their comfortable areas of R&D, worrying more about publishing papers with high impact factors etc. Minerals are finite/site specific/non-renewable and God's gift-- those working in these areas are the custodians of this treasure and should take the responsivity to come out with path breaking innovative technologies to present our case. We lost the standing as "think tanks" for politicians to listen and beauracrats to implement.
    The above may not be applicable to other disciplines.

  5. An interesting blog with some very good points. I don’t know whether the mining sector has a sort of national policy related to new projects but the oil and gas sector has had no option but to communicate how they will attempt to achieve zero carbon targets. Mind you, the oil and gas sector is judged to be the one of the great historical evils.......forget cheap energy, medicines, fuels, manufacturing and so on......its products are more widely used, I suspect, than any other. The ‘OGA’, Oil and Gas Authority has devised one interesting ‘arrow for its quiver’ which is the ‘transition to zero carbon’ .......reduce usage gradually over time to enable replacement technologies. We’re working on offshore Gas2Wire, electricity generation to replace traditional modes of gas production. Google ‘Gas2Wire forum’ which describes some of the stuff going on.
    Regards, Alan
    Alan Minty, Wilmslow, UK

    1. Hi Alan

      Add the mining industry to the list of historical evils, due to much irresponsible mining in the past (and not always the distant past). But now the mining majors are really promoting Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) protocol, but we cannot just rely on the most responsible companies. Governments have a critical role to play in reducing mining’s carbon footprint and bringing all the actors to the same standard.

  6. Barry, yes, there remains a huge confusion amongst the public about the metallurgical coal versus thermal coal. Metallurgical coal remains essential for iron & steelmaking (even though about 20% of the carbon load can be replaced by hydrogen, and that is not the metallurgical coal portion anyway, but the thermal coal fines injected via the tuyeres for BF heating). The blast furnace remains the most effective thermal heat transfer reactor for ironmaking and the COx gas from that point source is easy to sequester if required. Given that hydrogen comes predominantly (>94%) from fossil fuels anyway and green hydrogen is still quite expensive if it is to be compressed and shipped (rather than pumped over the fence), I don’t see how other alternatives are changing the industry. Given that one needs steel for wind turbines and supporting infrastructure for solar, the whole argument against metallurgical coal is just stupid. Thermal coal is another matter altogether and non-fossil (nuclear and renewables) energy sources are clearly winning. A lot of public education around metallurgical coal is required.


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