All things must pass - decline of the UK coal industry

Materials World magazine
8 Apr 2013

UK coal production, already at historically low levels, was dealt another serious blow in February 2013 when an underground fire at Daw Mill, Warwickshire, resulted in the colliery’s closure and the loss of nearly 600 jobs and £100m worth of equipment. A week later Scottish Resource Group, which employs 758 people in across 10 open cast coal mines in Scotland served redundancy notice on 450 employees. This shortly after another Scottish coal producer, ATH, was forced into administration in December 2012.  

Clearly, we are witnessing the twilight years of an industry that for more than a century was quite literally the UK’s powerhouse and largest single employer. A comparison of numbers then and now is sobering: in 1913, there were more than 3,000 deep mined pits (2011 – 12 pits), more than 1.1 million people employed (2011 – 6,000) and annual production stood at 292 million tonnes (2011 – 19 million tonnes). Even the 30 or so open cast mines today are just a fraction of the 157 that peaked during World War II. To put that into perspective, UK coal production now represents less than 0.25% of the 7,695 million tonnes produced annually worldwide.  

Many historians and commentators have debated and documented the reasons for this precipitous decline, particularly in the latter part of the 20th Century, but the first decade of the 21st Century has been no easier. Squeezed by a surplus of US coal on the back of rising shale gas production, European Union CO2 emissions reduction targets resulted in coal fired electricity generating capacity being cut. Most of this will be familiar to IOM3 members, many of whom worked in coal mining, and some who still do. But the wider membership will no doubt have a wide range of views on the demise of the UK coal industry, from those who recognise coal as a vital part of the UK energy mix (30–50% depending on how you interpret the statistics), to others who regard it as the dirty, dangerous and unacceptable consequence of our insatiable demand for cheap energy.  

Me? I’ll quote, slightly out of context, the late George Harrison – ‘All things must pass.’ Extractive industries such as coal, oil and gas must, eventually, come to an end. We can argue endlessly over exactly when that end might be, under what economic or environmental circumstances, and what governments should and should not do to support such industries, but at the end of the day nature has decreed that these are finite resources, and we cannot change that.  

Coincidentally, this month marks 50 years since the Edinburgh-based company Christian Salvesen ceased whaling operations, with the sale of its last two vessels, Southern Harvester and Southern Venturer. It marked the end of a controversial trade that had once been a vital part of Scottish industry, providing whale oil to soften jute fibre, itself another vital material in its day, now largely replaced by synthetic alternatives.  

Even now, while politicians argue over the remaining reserves (and tax revenue) from North Sea oil, most of us working in the industry are pragmatic enough to realise that it cannot last forever. But history shows the demise of one industry is always met with the rise of another. The question is, which one?