Bradley surface mine is set to close
“As it stands, that will be the last coal coming out of England on a surface mine,” says Gavin Styles, MD of Banks Mining, owner of the Bradley site. That may be good news for the government’s zero carbon emissions target but not for the 250 miners who face losing their jobs. UK industry still needs coal to make steel and cement and even power heritage steam engines, but Russia is now the main source for all our coal needs.
“Every tonne we don’t produce in the UK is going to be brought in from Russia,” says 42-year-old Styles. “That means that a British job producing a tonne of coal in a greener way is now going to be done by a Russian.”
Last year, 86 percent of our coal was imported from abroad, with Russia producing a third of that, followed by the USA and Australia. With Bradley closing that means the UK will be wholly dependent on foreign coal, with Russia being the big winner. For Styles, this makes no environmental sense at all.
“The environmental standards in Russia are significantly lower than in the UK. The level of greenhouse gas emissions coming out of a Russian mine is unknown because they don’t track it. Then look at the 6,000 mile journey from the Kuzbass region in Russia by diesel train then by diesel boat.”
It’s been estimated that transporting 6.8 million tonnes of coal to the UK creates 408,000 tonnes of CO2—the same as 186 jumbo jets permanently circling the globe.
The Bradley West extension was backed by local planning officers and business leaders but in the end it was environmental campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion, that persuaded County Durham councillors to turn it down.
Gavin Styles, MD of Banks Mining, owner of the Bradley site
“We are now looking at our options with Bradley West extension and whether we can appeal that,” says Styles. “But we are pursuing other sites.”
Top of the list is Highthorn in Northumberland but the government has been dragging its feet ever since it was originally approved in 2016 by local councillors.
Tata Steel in South Wales is keen for a new source of British coal—and backed by several newly elected Tory “Red Wall” MPs including Richard Holden, Ian Levy and Paul Howel— has asked Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to grant permission for the Highthorn mine that will create hundreds of new jobs in the North East.
“We were told we’d have a decision in April by that has been postponed because of Covid-19 and we have still not heard anything else.”
“We have a need in the UK for five million tonnes of coal a year,” explains Styles. “That is five times more then we currently produce. So you’re looking at two thousand jobs plus the supply chain which would be a further four thousand. The people that work for us are highly skilled, earning £8,500 a year more for a mining employee than the average worker in the North East.”
England’s last coal miners, workers at Bradley site
He fears the endless delay of a government decision on Highthorn may be purely political.
“They’re trying to capture a headline they’ve stopped coal in the UK but it’s a false headline because we are going to increase emissions by doing that. Greta Thunberg [environmental campaigner] is critical of the British position that has essentially offshored its CO2 responsibilities—I agree with that.”
It is estimated that just transporting coal from Russia will create more CO2 than the total excavating and delivery emissions from Highthorn for the same amount of coal.
“Highthorn is better for the North East because it will provide jobs and will provide £100 million investment,” argues Styles. “It improves the environment. It’s there for five years and if technology changes we are ready to transition at that point.”
Surface open cast mines typically last between four and five years before Banks Mining spends thousands of pounds restoring the landscape.
One of 10,500 new trees being planted on Bradley site
“We are very proud of our restoration successes in the past,” he says. “We want to make sure that we leave a positive impression.” The former coal mine at Shotton has been transformed into Northumberlandia —“Lady of the North”—a landscape sculpture park that attracts 100,000 visitors a year.
Britain faces a stark choice. Reject its proud coal-mining heritage and let foreign miners produce less environmentally friendly coal or overcome local NIMBYism to embrace a new era of more efficiently excavated coal beneath our own feet.
“I can think we can do it better than most parts of the world,” says Styles. “British engineering is some of the best in the world. If Boris want to build, build, build, we need the raw materials to do it and that is steel and cement and both those need coal.”
Profits from Banks Mining are reinvested in their 222 megawatts-producing wind turbines.
“With the economic value that we can create we can start investing in those environmental projects without having to have hands out to the taxpayer.”
Gavin Styles comes from a family of Derbyshire coal miners.
“My grandad was a miner,” he says. “My dad worked in steel as well before he joined the family business. Harry Banks the owner is my uncle.”
He’d like to think there will be a UK coal-mining industry left for future generations.
“Government needs to provide clarity and leadership,” he says hopefully.