Miners' strike anniversary: "If only..." Britain might be leading the world in clean coal technology
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
When Arthur Scargill visited the Camp for Climate Change erected outside the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in August 2008, he found himself at odds with a group of activists who back in the 1980s might well have joined him in challenging the policies of Margaret Thatcher. Undaunted by the placards of environmental campaigners declaring “No new coal”, he used his guest appearance as honorary president of the National Union of Mineworkers to mount a valiant defence of the need for a new and integrated energy policy based on coal and renewables which he hoped would result in the closure of all nuclear power stations. Delighted though they were both by the publicity which Scargill attracted and his criticism of the stop-and-search powers being exercised by riot police around the camp, the protestors seemed in no mood to be swayed by what smacked of special pleading by the NUM and they were adamant that if there was to be any real chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there had to be a ban on any future investment in coal-fired generation. Nonetheless Scargill was as ambitious as ever in presenting an action plan to revive the coal industry: + closed pits should be re-opened.+ coal production should be increased to 250 million tons a year (more than twice the level of the pre-1984 level out of output).+ approval should be given for the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power stations designed to incorporate the latest carbon capture technology.
Scargill had every reason to feel emboldened. Opinion remained divided over whether nuclear power was a safe way to fight global warming and despite a considerable expansion in wind farms and other renewable sources of energy, coal continued to generate 36 per cent of the United Kingdom’s electricity and was well placed for a comeback if trials of carbon capture technology proved successful. Kingsnorth had become a target for Greenpeace and a wide cross section of environmentalists after it was selected by the German-owned power company E.ON as the site for a new £1 billion coal-fired station, a planning application which in the summer of 2008 appeared to have the support of the then Secretary of State for Business, John Hutton. Other privatised power generators were also in the process of considering applications for new coal stations at Tilbury in Essex, Blyth in Northumberland and Longannet in Fife. In view of the strength of unity among protestors at the climate camp and the importance they attached to targeting coal burning as a way reducing global warming, Scargill deserved to be congratulated for entering potentially hostile territory and for arguing the miners’ case in his usual forthright manner.
Support for carbon capture -- not just for coal but also for gas and oil fired power stations -- was held up as proof of the NUM’s green credentials, an innovation which he said the union had been urging for years through his chairmanship of Energy 2000. He condemned the government’s failure to champion clean coal: the lack of investment in technology to remove CO2 emissions was all the more regrettable bearing in mind that Britain had “over 1,000 years of coal reserves”. But Scargill’s strident advocacy of a green future for coal could not hide the fact that the NUM was playing catch up.
The pioneering work which Britain had done in the development of clean coal technology was one of the many casualties of the 1984-5 strike when sadly the NUM forfeited the leading role it had previously played. Not only had the union lost the leverage it once had over government policy, but its contribution to the wider debate on protecting the environment had largely gone by default. Early on in my stint as labour correspondent for BBC radio news I had a valuable insight into how it might have been possible for Britain to have taken a commanding lead in technological developments like the capture of CO2 emissions if only the coal industry and power stations had remained in public ownership and if it had been possible to maintain a fruitful partnership between unions and management.
Long-term investment in new pits and equipment had previously kept Britain at the forefront of technological developments in deep mining and, given the chance, I am sure that tackling the pollution caused by burning coal could and would have been given an equally high priority if there been government support and a continued joint commitment towards safeguarding the industry’s future. Having witnessed the optimism of the early 1980s and the faith there was then in coal as a long-lasting energy source for Britain, I have often wondered over the intervening years how the industry might have fared if there had been a negotiated settlement to the 1984-5 strike and if the coalfields had not become a victim of political vengeance and short-term commercial expediency.
“If only…” was the working title for a programme which I devised in 2004 to mark the 20th anniversary of the strike but which, to my disappointment, failed to attract the interest of either radio or television commissioning editors. I accept that once the fight against pit closures and job losses took precedence over all other activity, both in the run-up to the strike and during its devastating aftermath, there was no time for the forward thinking which had taken place under Scargill’s predecessor Joe Gormley, who as NUM President had established a close working relationship with Sir Derek Ezra, the then chairman of the National Coal Board. The two men were united in their desire to develop new and more efficient uses of coal and they exploited to the full the collaborative ethos which a well-run nationalised industry could engender to extract maximum financial support from the government of the day.
Margaret Thatcher and her ministers had been outwitted on more than occasion by the cunning of the Gormley-Ezra double act and their ability to defend the conflicting interests of union and management while at the same time combining their efforts to force the government’s hands on issues of joint interest. My first experience of the cordial relations which had previously existed behind the scenes was at the NUM’s 1980 annual conference in Eastbourne. On the final evening Sir Derek hosted a dinner at the Grand Hotel, the last but one social gathering of its kind before Ezra and Gormley both retired. Management, union officials and their wives were at ease in each other’s company and the fraternising was not without purpose. When the two sides identified a common threat it was usually far easier to agree a joint approach. Earlier in the week a report to the Eastbourne conference from the union’s national executive committee had stressed the importance of the tripartite meetings between the mining unions, board and government over the steps which would have to be taken if the UK was to maintain its ground-breaking work in connection with the future utilisation of coal.
Extra state funding was needed to continue experimenting with fluidised-bed combustion and to develop and construct a liquefaction plant at the Point of Ayr colliery in North Wales to turn coal into oil. Tests at Grimethorpe had shown that power station efficiency could be increased by up to fifty per cent if coal was combusted at higher heat rates; the board’s scientists had also been experimenting with two methods of turning coal into liquid fuels. Pioneering work on coal conversion had the NUM’s full support and the leadership was at one with the management in trying to make sure that Britain’s technical lead was not surrendered to West Germany or the USA. Talks had begun with the government in November 1979 and there had been a further tripartite meeting in February 1980 but it was clear by the conference in the following July, shortly after the publication of the Coal Industry Bill, that the recently-elected Conservative government was intent on reducing state subsidies and on requiring the NCB to break even by 1983-4. In his address to delegates, Sir Derek said that although the Board welcomed a proposed increase in its borrowing limit, the management were concerned about the timetable for phasing out operating grants. He hoped the mining unions would join the board in seeking financial flexibility from the government because the results of research into using coal to produce liquid fuels, chemical feedstock and substitute natural gas were “stimulating world-wide interest”.
Little did the two sides know that within a few months of their friendly socialising at Eastbourne the coal industry would enter a period of confrontation which would precipitate the 1984-5 strike and put an end to the lofty talk about Britain leading the world in technological advances in the use of coal. Because of mounting concern within the union at the speed with which the government intended to implement what had become the Coal Industry Act, the NUM began talks with leaders of the rail and steel unions to see if it would be possible to revive the triple alliance to fight the impact of retrenchment in their industries. Then, in January 1981, Joe Gormley’s worst fears were confirmed: because of falling demand and the financial stringency imposed by the government, the NCB was told it would have to cut production by ten million tons, requiring the closure of up to 25 pits and the loss of 20,000 jobs, around a tenth of the workforce.
Unofficial strike action in South Wales had already spread to other areas and a national stoppage seemed imminent when, on 18 February, Ezra and Gormley led their delegations into the Department of Energy for the latest round of tri-partite talks. The scene was set for Margaret Thatcher’s first and only U-turn in response to the threat of a miners’ strike. On the strength of the guidance given earlier in the day at a Downing Street lobby briefing, industrial and labour correspondents had expected the government to stand firm but to our surprise Gormley emerged from the meeting to announce that David Howell, Secretary of State for Energy, had promised more money for the industry.
In my hurried, hand-written script for radio news I said this meant “that the threat of closure had been withdrawn from every pit”. Once the scale of the government’s retreat sank in and it emerged that the government was ready to add another £300 million to the NCB’s cash limit, Ezra and Gormley insisted that this must include funding for the proposed coal liquefaction plant. Finally in June, after weeks of lobbying by the board and union, Howell confirmed that his department would contribute £5 million towards a pilot plant at the Point of Ayr to test methods for converting coal to oil. The following month at the NUM’s 1981 conference in Jersey, Ezra announced that with the Department of Energy’s support, the NCB had increased its annual budget for research to £50 million and he was confident Britain would continue to lead the world in coal utilisation.
Ezra was as good as his word and despite continuing doubts within the government about the commercial viability of the project, the Board invited tenders in September 1981 for the construction of a £35 million pilot plant to test a liquefaction process which had been pioneered in South Africa and which had been worked on by chemists and engineers at the Coal Research Establishment at Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire.
Twenty-five tonnes of ground-up coal would be mixed with a solvent at high temperatures to produce a form of liquid crude which could then be “cracked” and processed in an oil refinery. The NCB’s process had a significant potential advantage over rival technologies in West Germany and the USA and if, by the late 1990s, it became commercially attractive, the Board hoped it would provide a new market for Britain’s coal reserves and become a substitute for dwindling supplies of North Sea oil. Another sign of coal’s resurgence was the NCB’s £1 billion investment in the new Selby coalfield in Yorkshire which was rapidly becoming a showcase for the world’s most advanced mining systems. By the summer of 1980 shaft sinking had been completed at the five pits within the complex and the board predicted that output would reach ten million tons a year and last for thirty years. Selby symbolised the turnaround in the industry.
As the president and chairman said their farewells at the 1981 conference, all the talk was of a bright future. Sales had exceeded 117 million tonnes in the preceding twelve months and Gormley believed that if the industry could exploit the newly-developed combustion techniques for more efficient coal-fired generation, they could increase output to 200 million tonnes a year. Ezra pointed to the industry’s contribution to the economy: coal had become one of Britain’s largest overseas earners, turning over £500 million a year when overseas sales of machinery and technology were taken together with exports of coal and coke. Britain is no stranger to rapid industrial change and industries have come and gone in the past but nothing bears comparison with the collapse of deep mining for coal and the devastation of the coalfield communities.
When conducting research for my proposed programme “If only…” I had to make the best possible guesstimate of what the industry might have looked like at the 20th anniversary of the strike. The most upbeat assessment was from Malcolm Edwards, the NCB’s commercial director during the strike. If there had been a negotiated settlement, he believed that in 2004 the industry could have still been producing 50 million tons a year with a workforce of 20,000. “What it needed was a reasonable compromise early on in the strike. If the NUM had agreed to deliver security of supply in return for a four-year pay deal linked to retail prices index, then Thatcher would have settled. It needed a long-term deal”. Any wishful thinking would have had to be tempered by the grim reality of the lead-up to the privatisation of British Coal.
In December 1994, at the chairman’s final lunch for industrial correspondents, I sat next to the Kevan Hunt, director of employee relations.
My note of what he said would have been the pay off to “If Only…” as it encapsulated the death throes of a once great industry: “We saw Michael Heseltine in the summer of 1992, just before he announced the closure of 31 pits that October. He refused point blank to stop the dash-for-gas although forty coal-fired power stations had already been closed. The Conservatives dropped the ban on burning gas for generating electricity in 1990. Gas stations are much cheaper to build and are much more profitable…We knew a future Labour government could not do anything because the privatised regional electricity companies cannot be forced to burn coal…I don’t think there is any chance of a comeback. Even if coal for oil becomes a proposition, it will be done in Australia where coal reserves are so cheap… We knew the moment we met Heseltine that the coal industry was finished. He said the dash-for-gas had been a great commercial success. We could see Heseltine liked the political freedom it had given the Conservatives. I think he could have saved the industry if only he had been willing to stop the dash for gas”.