Orders of the Day — Coal Operating Aid Scheme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:56 pm on 22nd November 2000.

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Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck 8:56 pm, 22nd November 2000

I also extend my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe on the work and effort that she and her Department have put in to ensure that this Government aid package has been given the green light by the European Union, and that it has been brought to the House for approval so quickly.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind, particularly in this House, that if the aid package had not been available, the bulk of Britain's deep-mined industry would now be closed. That would not only have been a tragedy for the United Kingdom, but a great loss to Europe. Given the short-term problems that the industry faces, and hence the need for such aid, Britain's mining operations are much more efficient and productive than anything else Europe has to offer. I hope to demonstrate in the next few minutes how short-term aid could benefit the long-term energy needs of our nation.

Our first aim must be to retain a balanced energy portfolio—a sensible share of the generating market for gas, nuclear and coal. The events surrounding the fuel crisis of the past few months are a timely reminder and a warning that we close any sector of our home energy production at our peril. The 300 per cent. rise in the cost of oil has sent shock waves around the world, with demonstrations from Strasbourg to Sydney, yet over the past 15 years we in the UK have allowed our greatest source of energy—coal—to go into free-fall and to decline desperately.

In some traditional mining areas, we have lost completely a skills base that took generations to build. In many cases, sadly, it has been replaced by desperate social and economic problems. We now have one colliery, Ellington, left in what was the great northern coalfield. I spent nearly 30 years of my working life there and I know many of the men who still work there as friends and as comrades.

I am delighted, therefore, that as a result of the aid package Ellington colliery has been offered a lifeline by RJB Mining, protecting the jobs of several hundred miners who live in an area where unemployment is still a blight and the rate of it has consistently remained at twice the national average for far too many years. I welcome the measures taken by the Government to address the very real problems faced by former coalfield areas, with a variety of initiatives from health to education. I intend to continue my pressure on RJB Mining to extend the life of Ellington beyond the four years already agreed, in order to exploit the huge reserves of coal that lie under the North sea.

I am sure that one influential factor in the argument will be access to markets. In order to ensure our balanced energy portfolio, we desperately need a new generation of clean coal-fired power stations to replace the ageing ones that are presently in use. These replacement stations are the only hope of a real long-term future for Britain's mining industry.

We are fortunate in the north-east of England that not only do we have an abundance of energy, but we are rich in ideas. The first offshore wind farm in the United Kingdom will shortly be producing electricity just off the coast of my constituency. Newcastle university is a world leader in photovoltaics—the science of turning light into power. The earth balance project in my constituency not only grows and produces organic food, but produces electricity from biomass and wind power.

The Wansbeck Energy Company is well advanced with the Wansbeck energy project, a partnership between local authorities and the companies Merz and McClellan, and Kennedy and Donkin—two of the most respected names in the field of energy and power. The company intends to build a commercial clean coal-fired power station of approximately 400 MW with the gasification of coal in a combined cycle process.

Given the demands of Kyoto, environmental issues are at the forefront of the developers proposals. There is confidence that the proposed process will offer significant improvements over existing coal-fired power stations, and that in terms of emissions it will compare favourably with modern gas-fired combined cycle gas turbines.

Contaminated mine water from abandoned coal mines is a particular problem in many regions of the United Kingdom, particularly in our area. A unique and ingenious approach to resolving the problem involves using the contaminated mine water in the gasification process in that power station. The plant uses significant quantities of water, which needs to be treated to extremely high standards. The opportunity exists, therefore, to use water from former coal mines rather than town water, reducing the threat to water courses and local rivers, and disposing of contaminated water in a responsible way.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to visit my constituency and see at first-hand our proposals, or, if that is not possible, at the very least to meet a delegation from the constituency in London. At present we have the skills base to build and operate the plant, for recently, as my right hon. Friend knows, National Power announced the closure of what was then the UK's oldest power station, Blyth A and B. The work force therefore still exists.

In conclusion, the aid package has secured thousands of mining jobs and protected many more thousands of jobs in the equipment manufacturing sector, which secures exports worth more than £200 million a year. Although the aid secures jobs for the short term, the mining industry may need long-term help. I urge the Government to support schemes such as I have outlined. The saying, "Think globally, act locally" has never been more apt, especially as we witness what could be the first major climate change attributed to global warming.

Although in my view it is not possible to end our use of fossil fuels in heavily developed industrialised nations, we can certainly improve the efficiency and dramatically improve the emissions from a new generation of clean coal-fired power stations. I urge the Government to support the development of a clean energy centre in my constituency, where we can generate electricity, manufacture wind turbines and light cells, and develop new technologies to increase the contribution that needs to be made by renewables. We can do that side by side with the fuel that has served the nation well for generations: coal.