1.02 COAL: A brief history of extraction
The burning of coal is responsible for 42% of total global carbon emissions making the fossil fuel the single biggest historic contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The end of coal is in sight, but will its demise come too late?
DRAX power station, Pear Tree Ave, Selby, Yorkshire, UK, (2019)
Coal mining in the United Kingdom dates back to the Stone Age as evidenced by the discovery of flint axes left embedded in coal seams in Derbyshire. Early miners first extracted coal that was exposed on the surface before progressively following the seams underground. Later the first large scale exploitation of coal in the UK was undertaken by the Romans who extracted coal from all but two of Britain’s major coalfields. By the middle of the 16th century as supplies of wood were beginning to fail in Britain the use of coal as a domestic fuel mined from open pits and shallow shafts rapidly expanded.
Lump of coal, London, Uk (2019)
With coal fuelling the industrial revolution, extraction moved away from the surface to deep shaft mining as the demand for fuel for the coal-fed steam engines that laboured in much of the nation's industries increased. Coal production would go on to peak in the UK in 1913 at 287 million tonnes before imported oil began to reduce the consumption of coal as the internal combustion engine rapidly replaced the steam engine.
Hingston Down Tin Mine, Old Mine Road, St Annes Chapel, Cornwall, UK, (2017)
The United Kingdom was the first country to use coal to generate electricity for public use when a 93kW turbine designed by Thomas Edison for Holborn Viaduct power station in London became operational on the 12th of January 1882. As a result, widely available coal rapidly became the dominant fuel for electricity generation in the UK and by 1950 coal provided 97% of all electricity produced. Large numbers of coal power plants continued to be built during the 1960s and 1970s, leading the UK’s CO2 emissions to peak at closed to 700 MT during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 as coal demand for energy production soared.
Ratcliffe-On-Soar Coal Power Station from a field near Kegworth Road, Nottingham, UK, (2019)
With a continuously increasing demand for electricity for domestic and transport use, coal provided over 70 per cent of UK power during the 1980s. While coal consumption fell during the 1990s following investment in new gas-fired power plants to take advantage of North Sea Oil and Gas that came on-stream in the 1980s, coal-fired power generation still provided as much as 40% of the UK’s electricity up until 2012.
Home at night, 16 Chollacott Close, Tavistock, Devon (2019)
With Britain’s domestic offshore oil and gas industry expanding and the successive closure of coal mines by the UK government throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Britain began to move away from mining its own coal. Under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, tensions between coal miners and the government reached a flashpoint during the 1984-5 miners strikes, when Thatcher sort to weaken trade unions and avenge the previous victories of miners in 1972 and 1974 at collieries like Clipstone in Nottinghamshire, that had led to the ousting of the previous conservative government. With miners shutting down the coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures, Thatcher violently suppressed the strike by mobilising police forces from across Britain and continued to close pits leading to a record high unemployment rate of 12% in 1984.
Clipstone Colliery headstocks, Clipstone, Nottinghamshire, UK, (2019)
Following the strikes pits would continue to close until the privatisation of British coal mines in 1994. While from the 1990s to the 2010s Britain has largely stopped mining its own coal as demand continued to decrease and the last few remaining pits closed, it had not stopped using it entirely. With British coal-dependent industries turning to cheaper imported coal from Columbia, Russia, The EU and the U.S. instead. And although the UK plans to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2025, its power generation is still highly dependent on fossil fuels such as gas and oil and the burning of biomass.
Film Still from King Coal, © BFI Archive, (1948)
The Drax large biomass and coal-fired power station in Yorkshire is currently the UK’s largest power station and was it’s single greatest source of emissions up until 2016 when it began co-firing biomass and coal. The stations' biomass fuel’s which consist of wood pellets, sunflower pellets, olive, peanut shell husk and rape meal are largely imported from locations overseas including those in Louisiana in the U.S. While Drax announced at UNFCCC COP25 that it would become carbon neutral by 2030 through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage technologies, it will still remain as one of Europe’s greatest sources of Nitrogen oxides and its historic CO2 emissions will remain in the atmosphere from anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years.
DRAX power station, Pear Tree Ave, Selby, Yorkshire, UK, (2019)
Even though the UK and other EU countries continue to phase out coal power generation, coal remains the principal source of electricity generation worldwide, with the largest number of coal power plants still operating in the U.S, India and China, with many future plants planned in the latter two. Although, both China and India were respectively ranked the 1st and 3rd greatest emitters of 2019 both have relatively short-lived emission histories and smaller carbon footprints per person than many developed nations including the U.S, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany and Poland where coal extraction still continues.
Szombierki Coal Mine, Bytom, Poland, (2020)
Poland, Europe’s second-largest coal consumer after Germany, still generates 80% of its energy from coal. Employing close to 80,000 people in the industry, Poland’s economy and politics are strongly entangled with fossil fuels. Extracting 61.6 million tonnes of coal in 2019 primarily for energy generation, which when burnt will release 165 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the country has approximately 25 active coal mines.
Anthracite coal lumps, Bytom, Poland, (2020)
Having initially refused to agree to The European Union's target of reaching net-zero by 2050, Poland is deferring the inevitable collapse of the coal industry which it is currently subsidising to the tune of billions of Euros a year. Between 1990 and 2016 the Polish government contributed nearly 53.5 billion Euro directly to the coal-based energy sector and mining industry. In doing so the nation is making itself ineligible for European Union funding that would help coal mining regions like Silesia transition away from coal towards other industries, thereby avoiding the mass unemployment that Thatcher's closure of British coal mines led to.
Tunnel, Guido Coal Mine, Zabrze, Poland, (2020)
Although safety and working conditions have improved for those who work in the mines, the work is hard, and accidents still occur. Risks include cave-ins, floods, methane gas explosions, chemical leakage, asphyxiation and the long-term health implications of inhaling coal dust and being exposed to loud noises and strong vibrations. The last significant fatal accident to afflict the Upper Silesian region occurred in 2019 when 5 miners were killed due to a collapse in the Zofiówka mine in Ruda Śląska.
Coal face, Guido Coal Mine, Zabrze, Poland, (2020)
Coal face, Guido Coal Mine, Zabrze, Poland, (2020)
Due to Poland's extensive burning of coal the nation is home to 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities. The smog, which causes about 45,000 premature deaths a year is worst in the Silesian region where the vast majority of Poland's coal is mined and burnt.
Łaziska power station, Łaziska Górne, Poland, (2020)
Since September 2019 a litigation process has been underway following the filing of a lawsuit by the Polish contingent of Client Earth against the operators of the Bełchatów coal-fired power station and it’s two mines. As Europe’s single largest greenhouse gas emitter, the emissions from which equal that of New Zealand at 45m tonnes of CO2 per annum. The plant, which burns lignite the most polluting form of coal has emitted approximately 1billion tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime.
Bełchatów coal-fired power station and one of it’s two mines,  Image © 2020 Maxar Technologies, Google Earth, (2020)
Bełchatów is surrounded by open cast coal mines which feed its furnaces, the extraction from which has cause major disturbances to ground water supplies and the release of heavy metals into the soil and water. Even so the operators of the plant PGE GiEK, plan to expand the open cast mines in the near future leading to the destruction of 33 villages and the displacement of 3000 people. The lawsuit, which demands that PGE GiEK stops burning lignite or take measures to end the plant’s carbon emissions by 2035 at the latest, leverages Polish civil law in a novel way by focusing on the communal stewardship of the environment, an interpretation that allows organisations like Client Earth to court to protect it.
1.02 COAL: A brief history of extraction
The burning of coal is responsible for 42% of total global carbon emissions making the fossil fuel the single biggest historic contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The end of coal is in sight, but will its demise come too late?