Guardian columnist George Monbiot is furious about a new coal planned in south Wales. He berates the government for forcing the scheme on the local community. So what do the joint developers have to say for themselves?
Environmental writer and activist George Monbiot doesn't hold any punches (as ever) in his Guardian column last week week, and I can see why. As with much of his writing you can feel his anger welling up as he outlines the latest instance of folly performed by public decision makers. His target on this occasion is a new coal mine planned for the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales, called the Ffos-y-fran land reclamation project. His ire is mainly directed at the current Government for forcing such a scheme through for economic reasons, when it might just be running counter to the Labour administration's pledges on reducing carbon emissions. My questioning and concern would also be aimed at the developer behind the proposals, Miller Argent.
This is a joint venture between two major privately-owned outfits, construction, housing and development firm the Miller Group and Argent, the firm behind the very successful Brindleyplace project in central Birmingham and who are planning the massively ambitious Kings Cross development. These two I had considered to be amongst the most forward-thinking and socially responsible of their peers. And they certainly trumpet themselves as much on their respective websites, which as far as I could find had no mention of the Merthyr coal project on them. "We are trying to deliver lower energy, greener buildings in the right locations," says Argent on its carbon dating page. And Miller released a CSR report this Spring which stressed its attempts to reduce the environmental impacts of its projects. "Corporate social responsibility, whether in terms of staff development... sustainable development or environmental management is at the core of our thinking," says Keith Miller, group chief executive, at the back of the report.
So what exactly are they playing at planning to develop one of the largest opencast mines in the UK? Well, having looked through the website produced by the joint venture partners for the project the message is that this project will provide economic benefits, and the means to the end is by resurrecting the coal industry. The only way to cover the cost of regenerating the derelict land is by creating a viable industry there, is the argument.
What price their (Miller Argent's) sustainable statements if the coal mine goes ahead?
On the frequently answered question page of the project site the developers also try to justify the coal plans in terms of future energy needs: "According to a recent report, we are heading for an energy shortage, with Nuclear Power (now providing less than one third of UK power) scheduled to decline over the next ten years. Renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, will start to play a more significant part, but there is still a key role for coal, which is still needed to provide approximately another third of the UK's power generation." The Q&A section appears to be fixated with wind as the only alternative, or renewable, source of energy: "Onshore and offshore wind generation will play a future role in UK power generation, but it will not be sufficient to replace the need for power from coal. Proposals currently being considered for Wales include a new technology 'clean coal' power station that can capture the carbon dioxide produced. To meet the Government's target by 2010 for generation of power by renewables, reports have claimed that some 10,000 turbines could be needed, which would mean building over 25 per week from now on... Miller Argent does not oppose wind farms; indeed it supports the use of renewable energy, but believes coal is playing a vital part in delivering energy within a balanced energy policy."The line is that Miller Argent is working within the Government's future energy plans, which sees coals as "having an essential role".
The 'sustainability' of the joint venture's plans are defined in social terms, to improve the lot of the local community by creating new jobs, although Monbiot argues strongly on health terms this is at best questionable. And there clearly is an economic crisis in this part of Wales - MPs were discussing the economic inactivity of Wales in the House of Commons yesterday. But, as Monbiot argues, plumping for this option to regenerate this area is "odd".
Perhaps Miller Argent would argue they are dealing in the real world here, offering a practical solution to economic blight. Carbon capture could after all make a dramatic entrance once the plant is operational and save the day. But I doubt it. Given the time taken to get these plans approved it's naive to believe a change of heart is imminent. But if the two companies are truly committed to CSR and to tackling their respective environmental impacts I'd suggest they take a fresh view of the Ffos-y-fran and rethink. What price their sustainable statements if the coal mine goes ahead?