As carbon targets and spending cuts push the coal industry to a new watershed can the deep pits — and their camaraderie — survive?

Jack Saunders is a miner. At 22, he is one of the youngest in the U.K. Small, dark and wiry, he looks even younger than his age but has worked at Hatfield colliery near Doncaster, northern England, for four years and loves it.

Mining is in the blood, he says. “My uncles, my dad, my granddad, my great-granddad have all done it,” he says. “I never thought I'd get an opportunity to go underground because the pit was shut when I was 16, but it opened back up when I was 18. It's something that doesn't happen for young lads these days. All my mates in the village are always asking me questions, but you can't explain it because it's a totally different world.” The average age of the U.K.'s remaining 3,000 or so deep miners is around 50. For them, spending much of their lifetime underground is routine.

But Mr. Saunders is young enough and his experience fresh enough to summon up the strangeness of the occupation. It was only Mr. Saunders who mentioned the lack of lavatories at the coalface: you had to dig a hole. Digging really is a way of life.

Until the accidents in September at the Gleision pit in south Wales, and the Kellingley mine in Yorkshire, which left five men dead, people might have assumed we no longer mined coal in the U.K.; that an industry which once employed a million men had ceased some time after Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill waged their titanic struggle in 1984-85.

But we do still have an industry, producing 19 million tonnes of coal annually, about a third of the U.K.'s consumption. Last winter, almost half the country's electricity was generated by coal. The deaths of the five miners produced a remarkable outpouring of feeling, especially in south Wales.

Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, historian of Welsh mining and son of the former general secretary of the National Union of Miners (NUM) in Wales, says that despite its precipitous decline the industry has not lost its cultural power.

“We've always said that Wales was built on coal, and there is a special emotional relationship even today when there are so few miners left. The valley communities still see themselves as mining communities and respond accordingly.”

British mining history

The watershed for mining was the strike of 1984-85. When it began, there were 160,000 miners. The defeat of the NUM after a bitter year-long battle ensured that the industry would be privatised and much reduced, since the newly privatised electricity industry could buy coal from foreign suppliers.

Many pits closed in the 1980s and 1990s, but a few staggered on, and the energy price rises in the past couple of years have prompted a modest revival. The coal industry has folded across much of western Europe but in the U.K. it has managed to survive, “clinging on by its fingertips”, as Margaret Faull, director of the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield, puts it.

Chris Kitchen, the successor to Arthur Scargill, the NUM general secretary of the mid-80s strike, says: “We knew what we were fighting for. We knew it was a slippery slope, that they'd sell the industry off. I couldn't see anything wrong with a nationalised energy industry that supported a national coal industry and vice versa. We've got the coal, we've got the technology, we've got the manpower to mine the coal profitably and, compared to the rest of the world, very safely. That would have given the ... stability of not relying on imports.” Mr. Kitchen's style differs from Scargill's, being more pragmatic. “Most people don't know who I am and that's not a bad thing. Scargill did what he did in his era because he reacted to the conditions of the time. My conditions are a lot different. I'm more into preserving what we've got ... trying to improve things.

“I'm not out to change the world and neither is the NUM — which was the ethos at that time. We were a big, powerful union and could dictate policy. Times have changed, but it does sadden me that short-termism and people looking for profits are selling us all down the river.”

Mr. Kitchen's constant refrain is that the coal industry should be nurtured because the U.K.'s coal stocks are abundant and the alternative, in the medium term at least, is dependence on foreign gas. He says mining provides well-paid jobs — £75,000 — plus a year for key jobs at the coalface and keeps communities alive. He contrasts the social stability that characterised mining areas with the drug and gang culture that came with de-industrialisation.

Carbon capture project

Mining is now at another watershed. The coal-fired power stations, the industry's main market, are due to start closing in the middle of this decade in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond 2020, things will depend on exploiting carbon capture and storage to produce “clean coal”. The idea is to pump pollutants under the seabed rather than into the atmosphere, but progress on developing the technology has so far been glacial.

The government spooked the industry in October when it scrapped a carbon capture project at the Longannet power station in Fife. Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, added fuel to the flames when he said that £1 billion set aside for carbon capture might be diverted to more immediate infrastructure projects to boost the economy.

“There are too many imponderables and against that background people won't invest,” says David Brewer, director general of the Confederation of U.K. Coal Producers. “The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been, at best, lukewarm towards the coal industry. They set themselves carbon targets, and the easiest way to meet them is to switch from coal to gas.”

The DECC denies it is lukewarm towards mining, and insists it remains committed to carbon capture. “We took the right and responsible decision on Longannet,” says a spokesman, “but are clear that £1billion remains available to support future projects. There are a number of promising projects in the U.K., and we will be launching a new, accelerated, selection process as soon as possible. The money will be made available when the new projects need it, which is likely to be over a number of years.”

The government points to the launch of a “flagship test programme” at the Ferrybridge coal-fired power station in Yorkshire. “This project, part of a £125 m government-led research and development programme, is the first operating carbon-capture plant attached to a power station at this scale in the U.K., and will provide a critical bridge towards our future goals,” says the DECC spokesman.

No long-term prediction

Jonson Cox, who last year became chairman of U.K. Coal — Britain's largest domestic producer and owner of four of the remaining six deep mines — sees a future for the industry to the early 2020s, but is not prepared to offer predictions beyond that.

“Here is a legacy industry with really skilled jobs, with an iconic role as an industry and an iconic role in the communities it serves,” Mr. Cox says. “It has the potential to find other, cleaner, ways of exploiting the energy value, but it's going to be seven to 10 years before we really know whether that can be exploited.” His job, he believes, is turning the company around, sustaining it for the next decade, and making sure the “mining skill base” is still there 10 years from now if the development of clean coal encourages a new generation of coal-fired power stations.

U.K. Coal made big losses in 2008-10, largely because of spiralling labour costs, but it has just recorded a small half-yearly profit, and Mr. Cox believes the corner has been turned. “We've got some momentum back into the company, and we've got a recovery plan. It can work, and rising prices help.” The company has, however, warned the workforce at its largest pit, Daw Mill in Warwickshire, that it is reviewing operations at the mine because of continuing poor performance. Some see this as a negotiating tactic in the battle to drive down labour costs.

The government claims that it is committed to the long-term future of coal, yet the post-privatisation fragmentation of the industry, started under the Conservatives and continued under Labour, is striking. As a nationalised industry, everything had been centrally planned; productive mines subsidised less productive ones, miners felt they had “jobs for life”, there was a highly structured training programme and career progression, and great emphasis was placed on research and development. British Coal was already working on clean coal technology in the 1980s.

Since privatisation it has been every mine for itself, with many going to the wall and frequent changes of ownership. There has been no master plan and little continuity in an industry where long investment cycles mean planning is everything.

Union fragmentation

There has also been fragmentation in union representation. The 1984-85 strike led to the formation of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which opposed Scargill. The division has never been healed, and the few remaining miners are more or less evenly split between the two rival unions. In an age of amalgamation and super-unions, these two minnows carry on with tiny memberships and a sense of mutual loathing.

Mr. Cox is probably right to concentrate on the next decade. The longer-term future for mining is murky, despite the warm words of the DECC. More than half of the U.K.'s coal now comes from open-cast mining, and the trend away from high-investment deep mining is likely to continue.

Wayne Thomas, secretary of the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers, doubts whether another shaft will ever be sunk in the U.K. He says there could just be open-cast, or drift mining, with tunnels through hillsides.

For the moment, the men who work in deep mining are grateful for what they have. They are working a mile underground, at coalfaces up to five miles from the bottom of the pit shaft. It can take an hour-and-a-half to reach the face from the top of the shaft, travelling by train and conveyor belt through the endless tunnels. Yet they insist it is a job like no other and enthuse about the craic and camaraderie.

“We've got a sense of humour nobody else has got,” says Jack's father, Howard Saunders, a miner for almost 40 years, “very dry, funny ... you wouldn't get away with it anywhere else. If you worked in a factory and said the sort of things we say, you'd be up the road.”

They have a pithy language of their own, too. Jack Saunders talks about spending his first month as a miner getting his “pit feet,” adjusting to life underground. But the expression that truly encapsulates mining is used by Bob Fitzpatrick, a miner for almost 30 years, with the scars on his legs to prove it. “When Yorkshire puts her foot down,” he says, “it comes and that's it. You can't help it.”

“When Yorkshire puts her foot down” — a poetic way of capturing the horror of a mine collapse. The expression is an ancient one; Howard Saunders says his grandfather liked to use it. It seems that miners through the ages have had a fatalistic streak. Except when it comes to the future of the industry. Against all the odds they refuse to let mining die.—— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

More In: Comment | Opinion