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12 Oct 2005 : Column 408

Clean Coal Technology

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

7.17 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his time today in a series of coal-related debates—not for nothing is he called the Energy Minister, given all his running around. I also pay tribute to other coal-mining MPs who this morning responded to the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for a good one-and-a-half-hour debate on the future of the coal industry.

The names Wyndham, Deep Navigation, Abernant, Garw Ffaldau, Marine, Merthyr Vale, Britannia and Six Bells are all ghosts from the very recent past in Wales—they are some of our most famous deep pits. For many people it is like reading the obituary column in the local paper and seeing the names of friends who have gone. Only one of all the deep mines in Wales is now left. That is to the credit of a singular group of people in Tower colliery who, against the odds—against the Government and the management of the day—defied advice and literally carved a success story out of the Welsh hills. I applaud my hon. Friend the Minister for announcing this morning the additional phase 2 funding of £832,000, which will go down very well in the constituency of Cynon Valley. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has campaigned long and hard on behalf of the Tower colliers and their families.

What if the rumours of the death of deep mining in Wales and the UK are greatly exaggerated? As the Minister knows, the long list of defunct pits that I read out have a common feature in that they are also a list of the workable coal reserves in south Wales—250 million tonnes of potentially workable coal reserves. Add to that the current energy challenges faced in the UK, mix in the proven and still developing capabilities of clean coal technology, and all of a sudden we have the ingredients for a future for coal. The same ingredients could be mixed throughout the United Kingdom's coalfields. Wyndham-Western, Deep Navigation, Abernant, Garw-Ffaldau, Britannia, Six Bells—that is not an obituary. Those pits can be used to revitalise UK energy policy. High-quality coal reserves can help our energy needs and our energy security and help UK plc to develop a leading edge in clean-coal technology.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should support companies such as Babcock and Wilcox, which are at the leading edge of new technology for clean coal?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely. I will deal with Babcock and other technologies shortly, because they point the way forward.

In south Wales, 250 million tonnes of reserves were identified back in 1979. The rapid and brutal pit closure programme meant that only 20 million tonnes have been mined. Modern mining techniques and global energy changes make the reserves more viable and they could provide power for more than 50 years.
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Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Is it not testament to the lack of a proper energy policy in this country that we are discussing the subject only now? We should be leading the world, with many plants using the technology.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I empathise with my hon. Friend but I hope that, especially after this morning's debate and the Minister's comments this evening, we will be more optimistic about the way forward for UK Coal. I believe that the challenge exists and that the Government are rising to it. My hon. Friend the Minister will excuse me if I push a little harder.

In his speech in Brighton, the Prime Minister talked about nuclear power being back on the agenda. The argument for coal is more clear-cut, compelling and categorical. If only the Prime Minister had asked me to help write his conference speech—I am still available for a small fee—I could have finessed it with a touch of black gold.

It is said that surely nobody wants to continue mining nowadays. Yet modern mining methods, including improved ventilation underground, mean that the work and environment are greatly improved. That is essential if we are to avoid or minimise the legacy of respiratory disease and other occupational illnesses.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Would that enable the Scottish coal industry, which is non-existent apart from open cast, to consider the possibility of drift mines? I agree wholeheartedly about the new technology but when we talk about UK Coal, we mean English coal and Welsh coal.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree. The feasibility of all the reserves needs to be considered without favour.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned Tower in Wales. Its existence is a credit to the mining industry. He also mentioned UK Coal, which is little more than a property company. Does he agree that, when the Government launch their new energy policy, based on opening drift mines in whatever part of Britain, it should be based on an alternative similar to Tower, or perhaps comparable to Network Rail, and that they should not simply hand out money to a property company to shut pits and develop the land?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree. That point was powerfully and repeatedly made this morning. There is a case for an alternative way forward that is not based on the existing UK Coal because of all its disadvantages.

What about the ugly tips that have disfigured our valleys and hills? The land is recovering and regaining its natural beauty. Surely no one wants to recreate the industrial wasteland and the scars of industry. Yet, again, with modern mining technology of various types, one can return the waste underground. Advanced landscaping techniques mean that the impact on the environment is minimised and can even be better when the mines have reached the end of their life. The discharge pipes for methane gas are a characteristic feature of many coalfield areas. Yet now methane gas can be harnessed for electricity generation.
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"But, for goodness' sake", say some, "You can't have coal burning power stations and achieve our carbon emission targets. It's bonkers to pretend otherwise." To think in that way is to have slept through the advances in technology in recent years. As a former Energy Minister neatly put it:

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall that, in the early 1980s, this country led the world in clean coal technology, through the fluidised bed plant at Grimethorpe colliery power station in my constituency? That plant was funded by more than 20 countries, including America and Japan. Unfortunately, the facility was closed down by Mrs. Thatcher. Does he agree that this country continues to regret that decision to this day?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed, and I am sure that all Members here will agree that we want to regain that lead in clean coal technology to take us forward through not only the next few years but the next few decades. The export potential is massive, but it will not happen without investment and prioritising clean coal and carbon abatement technology.

We know that, by 2015, at least half the UK's coal-fired generation plants will close because they have failed to meet EU emission targets. These older technology plants generate 32 per cent. of our electricity needs and as much as 45 per cent. at peak times. We talk about nuclear power, but the closures are going to coincide with the decommissioning of the existing old nuclear power stations, which themselves provide one fifth of UK electricity. With the best will in the world, renewable energy and even a resurgence of modern nuclear power will not fill that energy gap. Clean coal technology, based on securely sourced UK coal, is not just desirable but essential if we are to meet our energy needs.

Energy security is becoming a greater issue in the UK every day, especially as our reliance on overseas supplies grows. The Government's own figures show that 70 per cent. of the UK's energy needs will be supplied by gas by 2020, and that 90 per cent. of that will be imported. That will make the UK extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply and it is vital that we have an indigenous capacity for energy creation from a variety of sources, including renewables, clean coal technology and—well, who knows? I think nuclear power deserves a separate debate all of its own. Let us wait and see.

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that short-termism is the biggest enemy of indigenous coal production? If we can adopt a long-term approach to energy policy, to security of supply, to carbon sink technology and to coal generation, we shall have a chance of at last attracting long-term investment in the production of indigenous coal.

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