Coal in Wales: Is it time to call time on Wales’ black gold?

The golden days of coal in Wales are firmly behind us, but it's not entirely a thing of the past just yet. Credit: PA
  • By ITV Wales Journalist Gareth Axenderrie

Coal, those who have worked to extract it, and the communities that have been built around its industries, have long been synonymous with Wales.

From hospitals and miners’ institutes to coal tips and memorials, Wales’ black gold leaves a visible mark on the country and its communities.

However, it is now more than three decades since collieries were widespread across coalfields in the north and south of the country.

Since then, the UK’s coal production has dropped massively, with the eradication of coal usage worldwide held up as a key weapon in the fight against climate change.

Activists hope coal use in electricity generation will fall by 80% below 2010 levels by 2030, with all coal-fired power stations phased out by 2040 at the latest.

Here in Wales, the Welsh Government’s planning and energy policy is described as “hostile to further fossil fuel developments”.

Yet coal is still produced in Wales.

All eyes on Aberpergwm

One mine in the Vale of Neath may be about to test Cop26 commitments Credit: Google

The Coal Authority is expected to decide soon whether conditions have been met to allow new work to begin at a Aberpergwm colliery in the Vale of Neath.

Despite the Welsh Government’s wishes to move away from coal entirely, plans would see an extension of the existing drift mine, possibly Europe’s biggest source of anthracite coal.

In 2016, the mine’s owner, Energybuild Ltd, was given a conditional mining licence allowing it to extract up to 40 million tonnes of anthracite in the next 20 years. 

What is anthracite?

Also referred to as ‘hard coal', anthracite has the highest carbon content of all coal types.

It has lower levels of sulphur and produces more heat and less smoke than other types of coal. In the south Wales coalfield, anthracite is found in the upper eastern valleys, while steam coal and bituminous coal is found in the south eastern area of the coalfield.

It is used in industrial heating, steel production, water treatment and water filtration.

The company has said that if the expansion was to go ahead, it would seek to dig up 7.3 million tonnes at a rate of 350,000 tonnes per year.

However, since COP26, a row has simmered between the UK Government and Welsh government ministers over who holds responsibility for reviewing and making a final decision.

The UK Government has refused to categorically veto any decision to stop an expansion of the mine, a gift the Welsh Government says only Westminster has.

In response, the Welsh Government has raised concerns that there are "no guarantees” about how and where the coal produced will be used.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: "If burned, this would release around 100m tonnes of CO2, as well as other pollutants, into our environment going against everything COP26 stands for.

“We have been clear that we do not support the extraction of fossil fuels and are focused on the climate emergency.

“As the original licence here was issued before licensing powers were devolved, Welsh Ministers are not able to intervene in the licensing process and appropriately apply Welsh policy.” 

Is there still a value to Welsh coal?

Coal is still used in steelmaking, such as that in Port Talbot Credit: PA

While coal production and use in Wales and the UK has dropped dramatically since the middle of the last century, in 2019, the UK used 7.9 million tonnes of coal. 

While UK domestic coal production was at a record low of 2.9 million tonnes, the UK still imports coal from Russia, North America, Colombia and Australia.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has said that if the Aberpergwm colliery was shut, steel companies such as Tata in Port Talbot would have to import it instead.

The mine operator, Energybuild Ltd, has also said it supplies niche industries like water filtration and steel production.

It provided 160 well-paid jobs in the Vale of Neath area, plus 16 apprenticeships, it added.

Dr Ben Curtis, a south Wales industrial historian, told ITV Wales: “The science is pretty uncontroversial on anthropogenic climate change and there’s no appetite for it a return to the kind of coal industry when it employed a quarter of a million people. 

“However, coal is an essential part of the production of steel. There is research being undertaken on how to produce steel without coal, which isn't currently the mainstream way of doing it.

“In the meantime, if coal is being produced in Wales, for that production of steel in South Wales, surely it makes more sense to use that coal than to import it from half way around the world?

Coal in the future and its legacy in Wales

The memory of disasters such as Aberfan cast a shadow over Wales at each year's memorials Credit: PA

While there may be little or no appetite for a return of coal mining in Wales, the scars that over a century of industrial coal mining have left across the country remain.

Physically, the Welsh and UK Governments are continuing to grapple over who foots the bill for making safe Wales’ coal tips. 

Wales also continues to deal with the fall out of an entire industry leaving the densely populated south Wales valleys within a decade.

Child poverty rates, unemployment and economic productivity remain an issue in towns and villages that were once looked down on my collieries that employed hundreds in the local area.

Dr Curtis continued: “The issues created by the demise of the coal industry are really deep-seated because it is central to the way in which the modern South Wales economy developed.

“For that reason, it is something which isn't necessarily going to be able to be solved quickly.

“We have to kind of try and move beyond coal in that sense. Coal hasn't been a major employer in Wales for at least a generation.”

Workmen's Institutes remain across Wales. Unlike Oakdale's, communities continue to hope they will be more than museum pieces Credit: Geograph

Yet, Dr Curtis also believes there is a positive legacy that communities can continue to build upon, with miners’ institutes, hospitals and critical infrastructure still at the heart of many communities.

“What we do have is a legacy we can build upon here in Wales,” he said. “We have infrastructure and resources that can still benefit communities today.

“There are many positive things created by the industrial history of South Wales. We should build upon these positives for a sustainable future for these communities and the economy.

“As the National Union of Mineworkers South Wales area banner says: ‘The past we inherit, the future we build.”

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