“In the absence of new investment and urgent stakeholder support there is a high probability that SRG will be unable to continue.”
That’s what Scottish Coal had to say to their workers this week, when they announced the biggest reduction in the UK coal industry for over a decade. This tactical retreat will reduce Scottish Coal’s operations to just two active open casts by the end of the year. Some sites will be worked to a close over the coming months, including Mainshill in South Lanarkshire and Dunstonhill and Dalfad in East Ayrshire. St Ninnians will also close, with Scottish Coal leaving Fife completely. Their HQ in Alloa will be closed and moved to Broken Cross near Douglas in South Lanarkshire, which is staying open along with one other mine in East Ayrshire. In their words the business will be “slimmed down into a survival mode.”
In the last month Scottish Coal got the go ahead from South Lanarkshire Council to start work at Glentaggart East, and also got permission from SEPA to start draining Loch Fitty in Fife. They also submitted their planning application for Cauldhall in Midlothian. However, these new mines are turning out to be pipe dreams, with all new sites put on hold. They hope to have new sites “oven ready” (their words) so that if coal prices magically increase they can start production quickly. (This means it is still vitally important to get over to stopopencast.org.uk and object to SC’s plans for Cauldhall Moor.)
Scottish Coal are still claiming they are positive about the future, and that one day they think the coal prices will increase, and they can go back to the days of high production. But is this realistic? They are probably saying this in the hope that their bank, Lloyds TSB, will continue lending them money, and that the Scottish Government will throw them a tax-payer funded lifeline. The reality is that the coal industry in the UK is on borrowed time. Due to Fracking in the US causing the global market to be flooded with cheap US coal, coal prices have plummeted. That situation doesn’t look likely to change, and demand doesn’t have any chance of increasing either. In the next ten years all but one coal fired power station in the UK are planned to close.
Added to this is the fact that Scottish Coal are hounded by communities and campaigners wherever they go, and have had real problems opening new mines in the past few years with delays due to occupations, legal challenges and planning battles. This has undoubtedly helped to reduce their production (in South Lanarkshire it has more than halved in the past two years) and hence their profit margin. The amount they spent on new sites in their last financial report jumped more than £10 million. Wherever they operate they face opposition – and as conditions get worse for communities, the fight gets stronger.
Winners and Losers
For the people living near Loch Fitty, and for those concerned about the destruction of the environment, recent announcements are good news. Similarly, in South Lanarkshire hearing that the dreaded Glentaggart East site is not about to start will at least brighten some people’s day. In villages across Scotland the lack of coal trucks rumbling through the streets early morning will be a welcome relief. But not everyone will be glad to see the end of SRG in their area. Workers at the company, and those living near to current or recently finished sites face an uncertain future, and face that future with little support from the people responsible.
Those still working for SRG have been told that over half of them will be laid off in the coming months. The current workforce has survived repeated rounds of redundancies, with hundreds of workers being dumped by the coal giant. With no desire to dig coal and sell it, SRG have decided there is no work to be done. They believe their responsibility ends once the business stops making money for the stakeholders. However, the holes they’ve made across the Central Belt are still there, and they still need to be restored.
While the coal prices were high, SRG sold coal as quickly as they could, with coal trucks racing through villages, and excavators tearing through the hillside at a rate of knots. While profits were high it was a good time for the bosses, the rich backers, the aristocrat land owners and indentured politicians. No preparation was made for the inevitable, that coal prices would at some point drop. It is greed and negligence that has resulted in a situation where the now debt ridden SRG is making mass redundancies – some workers were informed of lay-offs through a power point presentation – and shirking on it’s responsibilities and promises made to communities during planning applications.
SRG bosses have failed to make any contingency plans, and have failed to make sure that whatever happens, they can restore their sites. Site’s opened during the times of high coal prices have yet to be restored fully, with Shewington in Midlothian currently not restored years after they finished coaling, and the restoration time has been repeatedly extended and has now expired, with no bonds in place to ensure the restoration is finished. SRG have put next to no effort into restoring the Glentaggart site, refusing to give the workers charged with the sites clear up staff or machinery. There is no doubt that they plan to leave their open cast sites, without restoration, and without the hundreds of jobs that restoring all the sites would create.
Joining the ranks of coal-destruction apologists are, of course, some of Scotland’s politicians. First Minister Alex Salmond, said: “We’ll do everything we can to assist SRG to maintain operations as a priority.” Ironic really, given that on the one hand he wants tough greenhouse gas emission reductions, and on the other a productive coal industry. Furthermore, Scottish Coal is owned by English businessmen, and exports the majority of its coal south of the border, meaning that all Scotland gets out of the deal is massive holes and impacted rural communities.
While coal production in Scotland has decreased by a third in the last year, and is set to drop significantly this year, globally the extraction of coal is at an all time high. Cheap coal may mean disaster for those digging it out of the ground, but for those in the energy business it means a cheap and easy source of fuel. While fracking and renewables are controversial in the UK the energy giants can continue to outsource the exploitation by importing coal from Russia and Columbia. Coal is the dirtiest, most polluting, and least efficient way of producing electricity, especially if you bring it from the other side of the world.
The winners are those who made millions, and squandered it. The losers are clearly the workers whose livelihoods depend on these mines, and the people who are now left with scars on the landscape and dust in their lungs, those facing fuel poverty due to the greed of the big energy companies, the people of Columbia and Russia where coal is mined for UK power stations, the people whose lives are being ruined by dangerous Fracking in the US, and the environment and climate which is facing an unprecedented assault.