Undersea coal

It was a shrewd move to designate West Cumbria as ‘Britain’s Energy CoastTM’. Launched in 2008,  BEC stretches along the coast of the Solway Firth from Silloth to Barrow-in-Furness.
Luke Dicicco, Communications Manager of Britain’s Energy Coast and Cumbria Vision, lists (in PlaceNorthWest this month) the range of existing and potential energy sources, nuclear and renewables, in the area’s portfolio: Sellafield (as a site for a new nuclear power-station), large offshore wind farms, onshore wind-turbines, anaerobic digesters, a future waste-wood biomass power-station; and feasibility studies continuing on tidal power generation in the Solway and Morecambe Bay.

Applications are also in for planning permission for solar arrays at Silloth and Bothel, and Iggesund are looking into ways of using waste heat from their paper-board factory on the coast at Flimby to heat nearby homes.

An article in the FT in 2010, entitled ‘Britain’s energy coast: West Cumbria is eager to be a centre of power‘, notes that “The initiative could also play a role in the UK’s response to the challenges of climate change and energy security. Locally, it has the potential to create 16,000 jobs and boost Cumbria’s economic performance by £800m a year.”

All this is excellent: nuclear power, and the renewables mentioned above, all help to reduce the UK’s carbon output by taking us away from our reliance on the burning of fossil fuels like coal.

Detail from Ted Wilson's hand-drawn map at Haig Colliery Museum

Detail from Ted Wilson’s hand-drawn map at Haig Colliery Museum

The coast around Whitehaven, and the sea-bed beneath the Solway, were formerly an important source of coal, a fact celebrated and explained at Haig Colliery Museum. There, you can see Ted Wilson’s exquisite hand-drawn and coloured map of the mines that stretched in a three-dimensional web of ‘roads’ under the sea; the mighty Haig Pit itself was 1200 feet deep, and its workings extended for nearly four miles. Haig Pit was closed in 1986, but a rich store of coal remains beneath the Firth: hundreds of millions of tons, enough coal to produce “One million tons per year for 800 years.”

‘A profound contradiction’

According to Professor Nicholas Stern, quoted in the FT, the proven reserves of the world’s top 100 listed coal companies and top 100 listed oil and gas companies could produce 745bn tonnes of carbon dioxide – more than half of the entire greenhouse gas budget for the next 40 years.
The combined value of these companies, $7.42 trillion, suggests that they are relying on ‘business as usual’ rather than investing in carbon-capture and storage R&D. “There is therefore a profound contradiction between declared public policy and the valuations of these listed companies, based on their fossil fuel reserves, which appears to assume that the world will not get anywhere near its targets for managing climate change.”

As Damian Carrington writes in his Guardian blog , the stock markets are betting on countries’ inaction on climate change.

Stern and the Carbon Tracker thinktank’s report note that at least two-thirds of the coal and oil reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for “dangerous” climate change. If the agreements hold, these reserves will be in effect unburnable and so worthless – leading to massive market losses.

Relevance to the Solway Firth ?

This week, West Cumbria Mining Company announced that it is investing £14.7m in a study to examine whether coking coal could be extracted close to Haig Pit. A report on BBC Cumbria says, “The firm believes there could be as much as 750m tonnes available in a 75 sq mile area around the colliery.  Mark Kirkbride, chief executive officer of the company said: ‘The UK is currently a substantial net importer of coking coal for industrial use, the majority of which is sourced from Australia and the USA. It therefore makes economic sense to source available coking coal on our own shores if sufficient amounts can be accessed and mined economically’.”

It does not make economic sense to leave this coal under the sea; but it does not make any other kind of sense not to.

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