A tourist observation - or the yellowing of England

As the crews stroke the Elvet, and the Durham Cow ruminates on an uncertain future, it is time again to visit the Land of the Prince Bishops and note some changes. Some forty years ago the land was dotted with pit heaps, some 26 underground coal mines had been producing coal from seams perhaps 700 ft below ground for up to a hundred years or more apiece, and the spoil bands dominated the landscape. But coal and its miners were not popular, and so now, as one drives around it is hard to find much evidence of that history. The land has been restored, and fields of rape and tall wind turbines now control a landscape where coal mining references are found only in the names of the odd village, the halves of a pit wheel, buried at the end of a housing estate, or the lone statue of a pit pony and his tub, isolated in a roundabout.

And from last year's visit

The commitment to alternate forms of energy is alive and highly visible in the Northern part of the UK. Each time I visit, I see more wind turbines, and, up here, concerns about the view change are evidently non-persuasive. A picturesque shot of Lumley Castle now will require a little photoshopping to remove the thin white lines that poke above the trees behind it. Here, perhaps unlike the Mendip Hills (where a Telegraph correspondent lives), energy supply needs will be less controversial. Similarly if you want to record your vacation with pictures, you have to accept that "England's green and pleasant land," is increasingly yellow with the oil-producing rape. On the other hand, a quick trip to my comments on a visit last year sees that it contains the comment, relating to a local vicar's protest at the potential installation of wind turbines at Tarry (where my eighth-generation ago acestor mined coal).

It would be one of those ironies of man, if a land that once hosted a series of mines across the fields and moors is now considered too beautiful for the more environmentally friendly windmills. I will remain dutifully silence about the other message.

The world is increasingly involved in finding alternate sources of power, and the impact of these, and other efforts around the world, that are now bearing fruit will certainly reduce the impact that the reduction in conventional oil production would otherwise bring. The displacement of the need to import oil with the use of this domestic supply will alleviate a little of the pressure that is building around the world as supplies tighten. But, in the tightening of that supply, we are not yet always sensitized to all the impacts of tragedies occurring elsewhere.

As we write about, and debate the next Hurricane season, for example, we tend to focus considerable attention on the GOMEX along the Gulf Shore. But hurricanes and typhoons are, in their impact on global production damaging not only in the Gulf, where a considerable portion of Mexican production also is found, but also in the deep water recovery zones around the world, and off China. The loss of production from one field was, this time, quite low around 22 kbd but nevertheless it is an indication that these tragedies and loss of life and energy can occur globally.

For the curious

Are the coal seams in that area played out, or did mining just become too expensive and in the short run unnecessary to the national security of the UK [given the fact that the North Seaa was coming on stream]?

Also speaking for the curious [and leaving myself wide open to numerous undoubtedly hilarious comments], what's up with the photo of the sculptue of the rear end of the bovine?

oil is cheaper than coal because it requires a lot less labor to produce and be useful. So coal has been eclipsed by oil, but things seem to be changing. Now that the Japanese have managed to magneticially contain fusion reactions for 100 seconds, quite possibly all fossil fuel will become obsolete and the orientals will rule the world!
The opinion held by many in the old coal mining communities is that UK coal production was all but killed as an act of political spite by Margaret Thatcher. A minor's strike in 1974 war largely responsible for the downfall of her predecessor Edward Heath and she was determined not to go the same way.

The UK coal industry had been nationalised by the first Labour government shortly after the second world war. It had officially been losing money for a long time but as always with nationalised industries there were augments over what to include in the figures.

In 1984 the coal board said the wanted to close 20 pits at the loss of 20,000 jobs in contravention of an agreement 10 years earlier. This prompted a strike.  

The miner's union leader Arthur Scargill, a socialist union leader of the old school (and the very image of Satan in Margaret Thatcher's  view) called the miners out on the 28th of March on a strike that would last almost a year.

Unlike the 1974 strike, this one was called just as the seasonal demand was falling and it turned out that the power stations had record sized stock piles. Also this time the police were deployed in huge numbers to enforce deliveries despite massive picketing. The miners on their side organised communty help and co-operation between mining areas on a heroic scale. It was a titanic battle of wills between two massive egos and the source of much mythology on both sides.   In the end Thatcher won and Scargill lost. The minors believe that the conflict was carefully planned, prepared for and deliberately provoked.  

With union power broken the mining industry was ruthlessly cut back and the tiny rump eventually privatised. Even this tiny rump soon shrank even farther. Many, even some in her own party thought she was taking this too far for the national good but she seemed determined to press home her political advantage and ensure that she was never again challenged by union power.

Geologically there is still a lot of coal but nearly all of it needs to be deep mined, there is very little that can be obtained by open cast mining.

Since there is still a fair amount that can be obtained cheaper from elsewhere in Europe and EU rules largely prevent national subsidies and tariffs it would be difficult to profitably mine coal in the UK now.

Re-opening old pits or digging new ones would be politically difficult now. The UK is so densely populated that any pit and its spoil heap would have to be near large numbers of people who would object to such plans.

Thanks. I had some vague recollections on the labor struggles but your response answered a lot of questions.
As I recall, the North Sea also played an important role in the final outcome. With the "Dash for gas" the demand for coal was to decline in any event. The change in the political landscape, with Thatcher's rather pro-business and clearly anti-labour stance, made effective labour-action (in the sense of unions) essentially illegal. I think the combination of factors, as well as the clearly personality driven essence of the strike (If only Scargill and Thatcher had been able to go head to head in a mud-wrestling championship!), combined for a perfect environment for the loss of the mines and the rise of the British "supply-side neconservative" movement that ended with Thatcher's sad, but truly entertaining fall from power.

Also, as I understand it, the UK mainland holds some fairly significant coal reserves. But, apparently, these deep mines require on-going husbandry or they become unworkable, and can only be restored at high cost. The destruction of the UK coal mining industry means these mines now require substantial remediation before they can produce again.

The UK coal peaked already in 1913! In the end of the 19th century the EROEI of coal mining was about 5 (18% of the coal mined was used by the coal industry itself - and add to that all investments in mines - in the US the coal EROEI is about 20). The coal production history of UK shows a very nice Hubbert curve. The depletion is real and serious. The few remaining miles are showing "geological problems" = serious depletion.

The breaking of the coal miners union was possible because the significance of the domestic coal has dwindled, there was a lot imports and North Sea oil and gas was available.

Depletion means that old mines become "unprofitable". It is not profitable to mine coal where there is none, but the econmic aspect masks the real problem. It seems that many in Western Europe thinks that there is plenty of coal left, but coal is "old-fashioned", dirty and economically unprofitable, and is not used much because of those reasons, but could "come back". The truth is that coal is almost completely depleted in Western Europe. There is coal, of course, but it is very deep, bad quality (lignite), in thin seams etc.

Check the coal statistics of Europe. Coal mining has totally or practically ended in France, Belgium and Netherlands, all significant coal countries in the past. Now statistics show no coal reserves there. In Germany there is mining, very deep and much less than in the past. Polish coal has depleted markedly, and so has all European coal from Spain to Ukraine.

Coal is not coming back in Europe any significant way.

"The coal production history of UK shows a very nice Hubbert curve."

Could you point us to some work done on this? That has not been my understanding of the situation.

But as "oilring medic" has pointed out in the past, I am one ignorant bastard. Can't read, can't comprehend.


They have a publication called "Trends in coal production and consumption", where you can see the development of coal production from 1853 on.

www.worldcoal.com and IEA and EIA have quite a lot statistics about coal reserves and production. NBER has also historical statistics on UK coal production for a very long period.

The problem with coal statistics is generally that they don't always differentiate between different types of coal, bituminous, non-bituminous, anthracite, and lignite. These are not the same stuff! Many countries have large geological coal reserves, but a lot of them are non-available because extraction is very costly (read low EROEI). There are a lot of coal deeper than 2000 meters, but mining that deep is extremely difficult and costly (as far as I know it is not done).

There are many coal producing countries that have had their Peak Coal (ie. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, UK, Germany) and some that have exhausted all their reserves. Examples of former coal producers are Belgium, Netherlands, France, Japan and South Korea. Peaking and totally depleting coal is a real world phenomenon. It seems that coal can have rapidly deteriorating EROEI when the best resources are used up. The EROEI in the US has dropped from 30 to 20 from the '70s. Because of this the net energy production from coal starts to decline more rapidly than the resources itself. This shows as unprofitability of the mines.

Coal is still the basic fuel globally. China and India are basing their economic growth on it. The total world coal production is highest ever. Globally, there is no fuel switching from coal to other energy sources, only adding other fuels to coal. World Peak Coal is not far away. The Chinese coal production at the level 2 billion tons a year (twice the US production) with a 9% growth rate (this means that the production would double within a decade to 4 billion tons!) is absolutely unsustainable. In fact the Chinese coal is probably near peaking because the Chinese are busy opening mines in Mongolia. We might guess that the Chinese-Mongolian coal is peaking in 5 to 10 years, and that means the World Peak Coal. Deteriorating EROEI will bring the net energy from coal down quite rapidly. There will be a lot of coal left but the production growth will stop pretty soon and that will mean World Peak Net Energy.

Even a considerably lower world coal production growth (ie. 2 - 3% a year) would suffice to bring in World Energy Peak, in a situation where oil and gas production is already decreasing.

So, the problem is not clean coal or CTL, but the coal itself. I expect some resumed interest in mining of low EROEI (expensive) coal as the overall EROEI of the energy production decreases (as the other fuels become more expensive). This is a rather bad scenario from the viewpoint of the Climate Change - lots more of CO2 is produced to gain less net energy. This might be disastrous economically, too. Heavy "emergency" investments in low EROEI energy production will draw the overall EROEI still lower and in fact reduce the net energy available for the rest of the economy. I guess that this has happened in real life already (Soviet Union, North Korea). The essence of many "Peak Oil Programs" is just grabbing the low EROEI resources with heavy investments. This is not a very good idea.

"extraction is very costly (read low EROEI)"

I think "EROEI" is a red herring in our current world. Regardless of the EROEI "cost," the behaviour of the companies extracting the coal is constrained by one simple equation: revenues - costs = profit. As laudable as EROEI might be, and perhaps it should be the *only* criteria for engaging in any activity, today's framework simply does not support this approach.

When one refers to cost, one is forced to accept the economic definition. Thus, regardless of EROEI, if a company can produce coal (or anything else) that delivers an economic profit it will do so.

I guess my question was, despite the lack of coal production in the UK, as clearly shown by BobCousins and his best mate Google, is this clearly a function of UK Peak Coal, or is it indicative of the pressures on coal from the expanding exploitation of gas for electricity generation since the 70's? Much like the fall of Communism seems to have produced a "Twin Peaks" in Russia.

You seem to be assuming that declining domestic coal production led to reduced coal consumption, and that gas replaced coal since the 1970s. Both these assumptions are incorrect. Not far away we find :

Clearly up to 1990 the lion's share of generation was from (imported) coal, and it is only since 1990 that this is being replaced with gas.

You seem to be struggling with a chicken and egg question. But the data clearly shows that expensive and declining coal production came first, and then came cheap gas. There is really no way to see that cheap gas has temporarily stifled coal production, and that if you took away gas we would increase coal production again. Coal production will be where we left it - limited and expensive. If we had to use only coal, we would import it.

Looking at the bar graph, the UK plans on using a bit more than 50% more natural gas in 2020 than today, with nuke way down.

Given that North Sea production (UK + Norway) production will be WAY down (1/3 of today ?). this has serious balance of paymenst and just sourcing problems.

Some from Russia, most from LNG.

The US will have some economic competition for LNG.  The UK is closer to many sources of LNG than the US, so lower transportation costs.

Direct importation of electricity from France seems likely.

all in all, not pretty.

If I were the French state electricity company, I would start ASAP on a 4 reactor complex as close to England as I could site it.

They are building a 1630 MW EPR in Flammanvile, Normandy on the channel coast.
Alan, we are having a detailed discussion re UK gas and energy imports here.  Based on latest JESS report gas imports look unaffordable by 2014 if not before. Furthermore this timeframe is too short for actions on the supply side to make much of a difference.
Some immediate thoughts, which I will report on TOD-Uk,

The lag time for wind is VERY short, as little as 12 months from financial decision to production for expanding an existing wind farm, and 30 motnhs for a "green field" development elsewhere.

The UK should change licensing procedures and make a serious commitment to wind.

The lag time for conservation is also very short and this MUST be encouraged.

The Swiss now contract for a several nuclear plants worth of power from France every night and on weekends, thus saving their hydroelectric water for peak demand.

Increase cross-Channel DC ties dramatically and buy as much excess power from the French as possible, as soon as possible, to preserve your remaining natural gas.

The French can build nuclear plants faster than you can.  Start on your own but sign 15 or so year contracts for new nuclear power from France, starting about 2012 or 2013.  By the time these contracts expire, France will need these reactors to replace thir own retiring reactors and the UK will "have enough" of their own reactors.

BobCousins shows here nicely that the problem really is coal depletion. Many European countries import a lot of coal - and not only coking coal for steel industry. Coal is still an important fuel everywhere.

EROEI is of course not the same as cost. But as lower EROEI means bigger inputs (inputs that contain energy) relative to output, it shows as higher costs. Very high costs are usually a symptom of low EROEI.

Government subsidies in one form or another (as tax breaks) can mask these higher costs and decreasing EROEI. In fact, government energy subsidies mean usually an EROEI problem (as in the US oil and gas). So production can be profitable. Also, when overall energy EROEI is decreasing, the relative cost of producing for instance low EROEI coal can be more profitable - you get, after all, more energy than you put in, if the EROEI is greater than 1, so net energy is produced.

The EROEI creep means that higher gross energy input with subsidies create an illusion of more available energy even if the net energy is not growing or downright diminishing. You mined a million tons coal more this year. This is added to primary energy production, GDP and so on. Nice. But if you really used half of that million tons (eg. as electricity, steel etc.) for new mining investments and production, net energy added for the rest of the economy is only a half million tons. That's different.

Now, if the economy has invested (eg. in coal power plants) in anticipation of one million tons of additional coal, there is a problem. In this situation, typically more energy investments are demanded with more government subsidies - and these will lower the EROEI more and the situation gets only worse, even if production goes up.

If the government is such (as in the Soviet Union) that it can give unlimited subsidies, all this may end in a situation where huge efforts and costs are devoted to decreasing net energy production (and increasing CO2 production). This will destroy any economy. We don't need Socialism here, a stupid Peak Oil Crash Program with heavy oil and gas subsidies, ethanol and the like is enough.  Clearly an effort to make the US oil-independent with all kind of very low EROEI projects would cause a bad economic crash and very nasty climate effects.

This is why I think the government should focus on energy conservation and not get involved in energy production. It's fine for the government to fund some basic R&D. Subsidies for low EROEI production just increases energy consumption and increases the environmental impact.
"coal depletion"

If I might be so bold, may I rephrase the question. Put simply, so's even I can grasp the reply, are recoverable UK coal reserves currently less than 50%? Is every seam that could be mined in the UK less than 50%?

If not, then is the apparent production peak analagous to the Russian oil "peak" during the fall of "Communism?"

Is the peak actually a function of resource limitation or is it a function of politics and economics?

The UK coal peak production year was really 1913 with about 250 million tons. Now it is about 25 million tons. The exact numbers for the present situation are for example here: http://www.dti.gov.uk/files/file14151.pdf

I don't know the original UK coal reserves in 1300 - it was about that time the mining was already somewhat significant. But for sure the original reserves are probably over 90% depleted. Remember - the decline has continued for over 90 year by now. Every single field is not depleted that much - there is still production. But in Japan, France and Belgium there is no production any more - the coal is 100% depleted.

I know that many people believe that the world has plenty of coal left - for two hundred years or so, and that coal is the unused reserve that is underutilized because it is "old-fashioned and dirty". This is not true at the present production rate. We speak here about conventional, commercial coal. There are huge reserves in the depth of 5000 meters under the sea - but no way of getting at it because the extraction takes a lot more energy than is contained in the coal. There are lots of coal in thin and scattered seams deep down. It is no way to get it up with net energy gain. There are huge amounts of very low-value lignite - but it has very little profitable use.

Coal depletion is real. After all it is just non-renewable fossile fuel. The EROEI problem cannot be dismissed as we speak about coal. The costs start rising considerably and the energy gain diminish when you must dig deeper - kilometer or more - or seams become thinner and the coal quality worse and ash content higher. The best and the easiest coal is always mined first, so the EROEI is constantly falling. This eats up the production growth in mature areas like the US and finally ends all production long before all physical coal deposits are exhausted.

You're absolutely correct. The MSM is BS on coal depletion also. The "low lying fruit" has already been picked. China is already going big into CTL. The 200 years line is pretty funny (40 might be more accurate-just a guess).
Sounds like it would be a very good idea to dust of a few breeder reactor ideas for large scale technology development along with the fusion research, solid state physics reserach for cheaper solar power, etc.
Google image search is your friend! These show overlapping ranges, I think there is a clear trend.

Thanks for these. Sadly, being kinda simple (just ask "oilrig medic"), I'm wondering if these declines are in anyway indicative of the shift from coal to gas which began with the explotation of the North Sea?

I only say this as the curves above show the precarious position coal was in *before* the 1984 miner's strike. With gas becoming the preferred choice for electricity generation as the North Sea came on-stream in the 70's, I just wonder if "Google image search is your friend!" is showing me effect rather than cause.

The political disputes with coal miners were perhaps a nail in the coffin, but really had little to do with the general demise of the industry, in opposition to the thesis outlined above. The miners strikes were the dying gasp of an industry, it was already cheaper to import coal. The miners said that more investment was needed to make UK coal viable - but that is the point of EROEI isn't it?

We still use a lot of coal for electricity generation - we just don't produce so much ourselves.

The underlying cause is simply cost. Declining resources becoe expensive relative to other sources and spur investment in new, cheaper sources. I don't think there is anything more complicated to it.

Quite right, Bob. "The miners said that more investment was needed to make UK coal viable - but that is the point of EROEI isn't it?". Exactly - and now we hear the oil industry saying the same - IEA says that the world will need 17 trillion dollars for investment in exploration and oil infrastructure. This is alarming.

I think that the UK and other coal history has a lot to tell us. One of my points here in the TOD has been that we should learn from the energy history and the experiences of various countries. Others have been through it. The first "peaks" occurred already nearly a century ago. This is not new.

Gas only became significant in UK electricity production after 1990: ie after the industry was privatised and deregulated.

There were a number of underlying factors:

  • cheap gas
  • the combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) became widely available in 800+ MW units from the likes of GE, offering energy efficiencies of over 50% v. 35% for a coal fired station
  • Mandated SO2 reductions whihc were achieved by using less coal
  • capital cost of a gas fired station is much lower, and time to commission much quicker

The decline of coal before the mid 1990s was about an increase in coal imports, and higher costs of mining coal in the UK, not about gas replacing coal for electricity generation.

The area in the 60-80s where coal was displaced by gas was in home heating.  Following 'The Great Fog' of London (hence the Cockney nickname for London of 'the Smoke') in ?1952? when over 5000 people died due to smog related illness, there were increasing restrictions on burning coal for domestic heating.

So what are the people betting on coal going to do when (not if) a big catastrophe happens and lots of white rich people and their goods get wiped out in some environmental hammer-hit?  Think of the hue and cry! Think of the laws passed against coal!  Think of the demands for clean non carbon energy!  

Thinking about it is why I keep plugging away on solar. Sure,  I've been wrong for 40 years so far, but just you wait.

The reason for the miners strike was to maintain gov subsidies, previously sold to the uk public on the basis of energy independence, and without which uk coal was not competitive with australian coal in spite of the substantial transport cost. There would have been no need for a strike if the industry was competitive. Not much different than us ethanol subsidies. One can imagine us farmers marching on dc if and when somebody is rude enough to try to cut back these welfare queens.
In regard to the bovine, it was the only way I could frame the racing shell and the statue in the same shot at the time, and thereby explain the first sentence of the post.
It's a random unexplained statue down by the river. I walk past it quite often and have never figured out why it's there (never really tried to be honest). Durham is known primarily for its castle, cathedral, university (where I study) and I guess also its cow.
I got it [read the linked page]. A throughly strange way to navigate. Ergo I still don't get it which might be the point. In any event it is nice likeness. :-)
It should be noted that this NE England coal business is where the modern economy started. Coal was shipped to heat London starting around 1660. Aristocratic landowners, biggest of them all the Duke of Northumberland, owned most of the mines.
The UK's achievements on wind power are appalling.

Germany has 12,000 MW of wind capacity.

Spain has 10,000 MW.

Britain has less than 1,000 MW, or less than 1/60th of electric generation capacity.

Britain is also the windiest country in Europe in terms of intensity and reliability of winds.

Why?  Because the UK planning system causes delays of years, and final decisions to be taken by local councils on aesthetic grounds.  On matters of national energy security, this cannot be sensible.

The odd swallow, or windmill, does not a summer make.