Mining companies are on the offensive in peddling all sorts of myths for why they should keep clawing out coal in the UK - and recently, politicians have started repeating those myths. So we want to set the record straight on a few of the most common myths we hear and questions we get asked. The scientific consensus is that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels and live on this planet—we simply cannot do both. Coal kills—it’s the single most polluting fossil fuel and the number one fossil fuel driver the climate change that’s already destroying lives, homes, and crops around the world.
It’s better to mine coal in the UK than import it from far away with associated transport emissions.
Although coal is heavy and transport emissions do add up, coal is so polluting to burn that savings in transport emissions by mining it within the UK are quickly dwarfed by any increase in usage caused by making coal supply more available/cheaper. Availability and cheaper coal as a result of opening new coal mines in the UK can have the 'lock in' effect for industry by disincentivising investment in research and infrastructure to transition, continuing the reliance on coal here too. This is part of why mining coal in the UK doesn’t simply stop the equivalent amount of coal being mined abroad, it’s adding to the global supply and use of coal.
Furthermore, most transport emissions with moving coal are released at the point of getting it out of the coal mine and onto a train/ship and at the other end of the journey, transporting and unloading it from a train/ship to customers. This means the difference between transporting coal 50 miles within the UK and 1,000 miles from Australia isn't as great as it may seem.
The UK negotiated coal’s inclusion in the final COP26 text for the first time ever and has been a strong proponent of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. The UK Government’s approval of the Whitehaven coal mine and coal use signals internationally that political leaders can make pledges one minute and disregard them the next, driving us deeper into the climate chaos that’s already killing people, wrecking homes, and trashing the ecosystems we rely on.
We need coal to keep running the trains on heritage railways and the tourism it supports.
Continuing to operate this traditional locomotive provides jobs and an attraction to tourists, as well as a way to preserve this heritage. Once the steam engine was the powerhouse of the industrial revolution, its significance cannot be overlooked. However, we have now started to pay the price of that revolution, most of all in the global south. And we have spread that carbon-based industry around the world. All carbon-intensive industries must rapidly innovate and adapt how they operate if we are to survive and thrive into the future. That includes heritage railways. We trust this is a challenge heritage railways will rise to, because the price of continuing the status quo is higher than jobs and tourism—it’s literally lives, homes, and ecosystems. And that’s true whether the coal comes from Australia or the UK.
We need coal for the steel industry
The needs of the steel industry are shifting with technological innovations in coal-free methods of steel production already producing commercial quantities of virgin steel in Europe with the expectation that alternatives will rapidly roll out across the industry and scale up. However, right now solutions exist that reduce the reliance on coal within the steel industry, including increasing scrap steel recycling rates, more accuracy in production and application that reduces the amounts of steel required, using improved types of steel that use less raw material to fulfil its purpose, and finally being more selective about what we produce and producing quality over quantity so we produce less overall.
Coal is a ‘transition mineral’.
Alongside fossil-fuel gas, coal is sometimes peddled as a ‘transition mineral’—mostly by coal companies, and sometimes repeated by politicians, usually also with vested interests. The argument is often either that coal is needed to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewable energy infrastructure that’s replacing it, or that coal’s needed to produce the steel for wind turbines. In reality continuing to mine and use coal delays the rapid transition we require, and crowds out alternative options that won’t profit fossil fuel companies. As long as coal continues to be in reliable supply to industries, it will jeopardise the rapid transition those industries must make away from coal as, ultimately, industries are guided by their bottom line, making us pay for their impacts on our climate when food prices rise and our homes are flooded.
Coal mining supports jobs
Coal mining companies often let their workers down when mines close by failing to prepare them with retraining and other opportunities to transition into decent, sustainable, and desirable employment. Often, mining companies know years in advance of when they’ll need to close the mine and so have plenty of time to retrain workers—but they rarely do. Instead, mining companies like Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd then use these workers’ fates as bargaining chips to leverage mining extensions and other concessions to maximise their own profits.
Whenever an industry shuts down, it’s a challenging time. But when that transition is worker-led, unions are central to negotiations, and there is actual infrastructure support from government in alternative industries, it can lead to flourishing opportunities in sustainable jobs.