The untimely closure of Kellingley Colliery

Materials World magazine
,
1 Feb 2016

Mark Godden is Mine and Quarry Manager at Albion Stone, UK. With more than 30 years’ experience in the sector, Mark has developed new underground dimension stone mining techniques and modern open quarrying methods, been involved in the supply of Portland Stone for Buckingham Palace, and worked on the refurbishment of Green Park Tube Station.

Mark Godden laments the premature death of UK coal mining, after the closure of Kellingley Colliery

Coal is a highly political sedimentary rock, capable of stimulating debate that is just as hot as any fire kindled from it.  

Coal was vital in energising Britain’s industrial expansion during the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. Even today, coal is an important contributor to the UK’s energy mix, with 38m tonnes being consumed during 2014 for the generation of electricity. The mining of coal has taken place on an industrial scale in Britain for the past 250 years and so I was profoundly saddened when the country’s last operational deep coal mine, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, closed its doors on 18 December 2015 with the loss of 450 jobs. 

The closure of Kellingley punctuated the end of decades of decline for the UK’s coal mining industry. In my opinion, this represents a monumental and disastrous failure by successive major industry stakeholders, not least the miners themselves. 

Some contraction of the industry was inescapable as ‘King Coal’ lost its crown when society increasingly looked to oil and gas for its energy needs, but this premature expiry was not inevitable. 

Decades of industrial unrest, culminating in the catastrophic year-long miner’s strike in 1984, did much to strangle what remained of the industry at that time. The miners’ strike turned coal into a political pariah, assiduously avoided by every mainstream politician since Margaret Thatcher. Even today, after thirty years, the faultlines dividing mining communities as a consequence of the strike lie very close to the surface.

It’s not difficult to understand where the endemic militancy of the mining unions came from. Uncaring and exploitative Victorian mine owners combined with the kind of self-reliance and camaraderie amongst miners usually found only between front line troops, provided fertile ground for union expansion. Unfortunately, this morphed into the toxically militant environment that existed within the coal industry throughout most of the 20th Century, making it utterly inflexible and wholly unprepared for the economic realities of the free market that came with denationalisation in 1997. The UK coal industry was already suffering from self-imposed rigor mortis 50 years before it died.

If poor industrial relations were not enough of an issue for the industry, ever-growing concerns surrounding environmental impacts from the combustion of coal have done nothing to enhance its reputation, serving only to further erode confidence in coal’s future viability.

In 2011, the Government estimated that the UK had reserves of over 3bln tonnes of coal. It seems to be entirely feasible that, given sufficient political will (or perhaps more plausibly, a very large magic-wand), cleaner methods of using coal and effective methods of carbon capture and sequestration could be developed along with the establishment of lean and efficient mining methods. Under these circumstances, the UK’s remaining reserves of coal might be exhumed to provide a great deal of the nation’s electricity for hundreds of years to come,
in an economic, self-sufficient and relatively planet-friendly way.

Meanwhile, it is a very harsh reality that just before Christmas 2015, the headgear forever stopped turning at Kellingley Colliery. The only sound now to be heard is the distant rumble of trains – hauling truckload after truckload of economically less expensive but environmentally more costly South American coal to the nearby Ferrybridge Power Station. 

What do you think? Should the UK coal industry have been kept alive? Write to materials.world@iom3.org, or tweet us @materialsworld