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Technical presentations, 6K
Presidential Address: Mining in Scotland – What Future?

A copy of this presentation is available from the Hon Secretary

The last two or three years have seen a number of landmarks in the mining industry in the UK. These include the first year that imports of coal have exceeded indigenous production, the closure of a number of English collieries and of course, the flooding and subsequent abandonment of Longannet. It was against this background that I decided, in my Presidential Address, to examine what future could lie ahead for the mining industry in Scotland.

Despite a wide variety of minerals that have been mined in the past, coal was, and still is, to a lesser extent, an important contributor to Scotland’s economy. Despite the closure of our last deep mine, the Scottish opencast sector is supplying approximately a quarter of the UK’s total coal production. The opencast sector has had a bad press for many years due to its perception, occasionally justified but usually not, of being environmentally damaging. Unfortunately, the industry realises that it has got an uphill struggle to demonstrate to the public, and our elected representatives, that opencast mining is not the ‘monster’ it is frequently made out to be.

The biggest challenge that the coal industry has to meet is that of global warming. There can be no doubt that the climate is changing and the power industry has a major part to play in reversing the trend. Carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas and emissions from coal-fired power stations are a significant source of CO2. The Government has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 60% by the year 2050, and creating a low carbon economy has become the main plank of energy policy. Targets have been set for the proportion of electricity generated by renewable sources. In Scotland these are 18% by 2010 and 40% by 2020. Just now, renewables really means wind, and usually onshore. Scotland has a huge wind resource, but it will be interesting to see how the planning system copes with the rash of planning applications over the next couple of years – planning gridlock? There is, off course, the great potential of offshore wind and wave power, but the engineering challenges for these are still being learnt.

In the meantime, we have to consider that our nuclear power stations and a number of existing coal-fired stations are coming towards the end of their lives. In Scotland nuclear is particularly important, as it supplies over a half of our electricity. It is planned that our nuclear stations will be closed by 2020. It would be preferable to replace them with other ‘zero carbon’ sources such as renewables - but will they be able to fill the gap by then? Invariably, gas will plug a large part, but bearing in mind, that by 2006, the UK will become a net importer of gas and by 2010, a net importer of oil, are we leaving ourselves a hostage to fortune?

It would be nice to think that coal could come to the rescue. The low carbon economy means ‘Clean Coal.’ In a ‘clean coal’ power station, the coal is gasified and the CO2 collected and stored underground where it can be used for enhancing the recovery of oil or methane. The technology is out there and well proven. ‘Clean coal’ power stations have been operating in the USA for many years and a British company has recently announced a new mine-mouth power station in South Wales.

So, does the coal industry have a future? We have an indigenous fuel that can play a vital part in providing a mix of diverse and secure energy supplies, certainly for the medium term, and possibly longer. It can meet the environmental challenges that we have to address now and in the future. Unfortunately, the industry is an easy target for regulatory control by the Government to meet its international obligations. If the ‘whole picture’ were looked at, there should also be controls on air travel, an equally guilty candidate when it comes to climate change. How politically popular would that be?

(Martin Downing, Wardell Armstrong Laird Menzies - 8 October 2003)

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Website last upadated: August 1, 2016 The Mining Institute of Scotland is a private limited company registered in Scotland with Number 311798