Thursday, January 26, 2006

In support of the black stuff

I read an interesting article today by George Kerevan in the Scotsman.
For the benefit of overseas readers, rocketing energy prices and the future of the UK’s energy strategy is a hot political issue here.

Whilst the UK has been in recent history self sufficient in gas and even a net exporter of oil, largely due to North Sea reserves, we now find ourselves increasingly relying on imports. When the Russian recently “turned off” a gas pipeline to a neighbour and “accidentally” cut off supplies to Europe the issue came in to even sharper focus.

Historically the UK’s main energy needs were supplied from coal, and I grew up in a major coal (and steel) producing region in South Yorkshire. My Father was a coalminer and in fact my whole family and most of my neighbours were employed in either the coal or steel industry.

I recall well, my brief meeting with the “Careers” master some two months before leaving school. It consisted of him asking if I had decided whether I was going to go in the steelworks or “down t’pit”. In South Yorkshire in 1970 no one would have thought any other option even existed!

Back in 1980’s the then Conservative Government lead by Mrs. Thatcher undertook to deal with the issue of Trade Unions that had been a “thorn in the side” of many previous Governments and after having had a “trial run” confrontation with the Steelworkers Union in 1979, set out to break the Coal miners. This lead to the Coal Miners Strike of 1984, from which neither the union, the coal industry or many mining communities ever recovered.

Coal fired power stations closed rapidly to be replaced by gas and oil fired plants, for which at the time natural resources were in abundance. Fast forward to 2006 and the UK find’s itself increasingly reliant upon imports to feed our energy requirements, and arguments raging on the practicality and desirability of renewable energy sources versus oil, gas and nuclear options. One source missing from this argument is coal!

Now the closure of so many coal mines in the eighties may have been a political or a financial imperative, I am not about to climb on my soap box over that issue. What is true is that the legacy of that decision is that we no longer have a coal mining industry.

Whilst I can almost here the environmentalists scream, the fact is that production of coal for power generation worldwide is increasing, with China relying on coal for around 80% of their energy generation. We are no longer an Island either economically or environmentally and the decision to burn fossil fuels by other economies around the world impacts us whether we like it or not.

Maybe it’s time to think again, and apply some of subsidies on offer to the researchers of renewable energy sources to develop cleaner coal burning technology. At the very least much of the world wide coal reserves are in countries that are politically stable, even friendly, and maybe there is “seam” or two left under our own feet. Perhaps by taking a lead in looking for ways to use coal in a “cleaner way” and even develop technologies and products that we can sell to the world benefiting all. If that resulted in lower bills for UK industry and a boost for our engineering sector, then our domestic steel industry could look to a brighter future too.

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