Orders of the Day — Coal Operating Aid Scheme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 22nd November 2000.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 8:51 pm, 22nd November 2000

I shall try to heed the Minister's suggestion that we speak briefly so that hon. Members who represent coal mining constituencies have plenty of opportunity to speak. Indeed, the deputy leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is one of them. Twickenham is far removed from the coal mining industry—almost as far as Bognor Regis—but I have an interest because this subject is about environmental policy as well as about coal mining.

In the Government's report on climate change, published a few days ago, I was struck by the extent to which the coal mining industry has carried the burden of CO2 emission reductions. Ministers of this Government and the previous Government have gone around the world saying that Britain has made an enormous contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, but the small print in the report makes it clear that the sacrifice has been made almost entirely by one industry.

Between 1990 and 1998, the shift to gas from coal reduced carbon emissions by 13 million tonnes compared with a reduction of 2 million tonnes of carbon achieved through the petrol duty escalator, protests against which almost brought the country to a halt. That 13 million tonnes needs to be set in the context of the total net reductions in this country, which were, as far as I can deduce from the figures, about 13.5 million tonnes. Therefore, one relatively small industry has carried almost the whole burden of adjustment in an important environmental shift. In that context, it is only reasonable to expect some of the pain caused by that adjustment to be cushioned.

The Government's intervention is not propping up a declining industry—I would not support it if it were—but easing a transition within a relatively small remaining part of an industry that has taken an enormous amount of pain so that Britain as a whole can claim substantial environmental improvements in the global context that is discussed in The Hague.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said that he saw support for the coal mining industry as a quid pro quo for the liberalisation of permission for gas-fuelled power stations. I am sure that that is right, but it is an entirely reasonable quid pro quo. It seems right that the coal industry should get some relief from the pain of adjustment, but equally right that the gas permissions should be liberalised. There are powerful reasons why that should happen. Every unit of energy emits 40 per cent. less carbon-using gas and there are the additional benefits of using combined-cycle technology, which reduces carbon emissions even further. There is less sulphur, fewer particulates and additional advantages of being able to build gas-powered plants near the consumer without investment in the transmission system. Such plants can be built much more quickly. We all know the good reasons why gas must develop. So, the policy is a quid pro quo, but an entirely reasonable one in which there is an element of balance.

In the long term, we face a challenge that neither coal nor gas can answer. The problem will arise around 2005—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned it—when the older atomic power stations, which at present make a major contribution to the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, will have to be phased out. If they are replaced by gas-powered plants, emissions for every unit of energy will increase by about 60 per cent., and if by coal-powered ones, by about 80 per cent.—unless new technology is developed.

So, neither fuel represents an answer to the problem. That is why regarding gas as a panacea is just as dangerous as seeing it as some unacceptable form of fuel. That is why we on the Liberal Democrat Benches have tried to tie the Government to much stronger commitments to renewable energy in 2010. Indeed, it is why we tabled amendments to the Utilities Bill to that effect.

However, in the narrower context of the motion, and given the pressures that the coal mining industry has had to bear, the proposal is entirely reasonable, and we shall support it.