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European Activists Form Cross-border Alliances to Track the Impacts of International Coal Trade

Greens and labor groups demand more transparency about where imported coal comes from and the conditions under which it was extracted

The Ferrybridge coal-fired power plant looms over the rolling hills of Yorkshire, England, an imposing industrial relic with towering brick smoke stacks and a squadron of hourglass-shaped cooling towers pouring steam into the sky. This is a region built on coal, and the small towns dotting the landscape are known as coalfield communities. There are still many millions of tons of coal underground here that will probably never be extracted, a fact that irks many miners who’ve been out of work for two to three decades.

photoname Photo by Vaidotas MišeikisThe Ferrybridge power plant in Yorkshire, England. Much of the coal burned
here and in other coal-fired plants across England comes from overseas.

Now the coal burned in Ferrybridge and other massive coal-fired plants throughout the country comes mostly from far overseas, including Russia (38 percent), Colombia (25 percent), Poland, the United States and Australia. (Read "Fueling the Tiger" in the Journal's Winter 2013 issue that looks into US coal industry’s expansion and export ambitions.)

That’s because it is much cheaper to ship coal mined in massive opencast, strip mines abroad than to tap the deep underground coal seams in the United Kingdom. There were once about 700,000 coal miners in England, but nearly all the mines closed between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s as they were deemed “uneconomic” and as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a strategic plan to gut the once-powerful National Union of Mineworkers. 

There are few mining jobs left in Yorkshire and other former coalfields, even though residents still live with the air pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants. Many former miners, who know well the dangerous and grueling nature of mining, are angry that the UK is buying coal from countries where it is known that workers labor in extremely dangerous and unhealthy conditions, where environmental regulations are lax, and where indigenous and agricultural communities are often displaced and repressed as a result of mining.

Last year, for the first time since 1974, the UK imported more energy than it produced, according to a government press release. “We had working conditions as good as can be, but now we’re bringing coal from halfway around the world from places where they employ kids,” says Harry Malkin, a former miner in Yorkshire who now works as an artist.

Richard Solly co-founded the London Mining Network after a trip to the Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia in 2000. He had gone on the trip mainly to assist a friend as a translator but he returned to England unable to forget the trauma and despair he’d seen among villagers violently displaced for the mine’s expansion. Cerrejon — the largest export coal pit in the world and the largest coal mine in Latin America — operates purely to export coal. The UK is a major customer and the mine is owned and operated by three companies that are traded on the London Stock Exchange — Anglo-American, BHP Billiton and Xstrata. Anglo-American is headquartered in London.  

“The opening of Cerrejon gave Maggie Thatcher the confidence to attack the mineworkers, knowing they would have this vast supply where they wouldn’t have to worry about pesky unions and environmental regulations, and it was cheaper,” said Solly, at a café near the office that the London Mining Network shares with other non-profit groups in a diverse working class neighborhood of London. “Cerrejon was the destroyer of agricultural and fishing ways of life in Colombia, while also helping to destroy the mineworkers’ livelihoods in Britain,” he said.

The London Mining Network has called for the creation of a new national agency that would have enforcement powers and investigate whether mining companies registered or traded in the country are complying with local and UK laws and upholding international conventions on environmental and human rights in their global mining operations.

It is a similar story in Germany. Coal mining in the Ruhr region in northwest Germany drove the industrial revolution in the country by helping fuel steel mills and other heavy industry. The mines were like underground cities, with hundreds of miles of tunnels and railroads. But from the 1950s on they began to shut down because it was cheaper to import coal from Russia, Poland, and farther-flung countries like Colombia, South Africa, Russia, and the US.  In 2011 coal-fired power plants burning typical “hard coal” accounted for almost a fifth of Germany’s power supply, and almost all that coal was imported. The few remaining hard coal mines in Germany will close by 2018, when government subsidies end.

Many labor activists and environmental groups would like to see coal-fired power phased out altogether because of the health, environmental, and social impacts of coal mining and burning coal. And as long as coal-fired power continues to be a major energy source, they would at least like to have more transparency about where imported coal comes from and the conditions under which it was extracted. Activists in the UK and Germany have tried hard to find out exactly where the coal burned in specific power plants is being brought in from, but corporate privacy policies make it nearly impossible to get this kind of information.

Faced with the challenge of tracking the social and environmental impacts of international coal trade, European anti-coal groups have increasingly begun forming alliances with coal campaigners in the US and South America. US coal exports to Europe increased 29 percent from March 2011 to March 2012. The US also exports liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. American spot market prices for natural gas run much lower than European prices in part because hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas has not yet taken off in Europe and also because European gas prices are still largely pegged to the price of oil.

European activists have also developed close ties with Colombian miners and community members impacted by mining. Several Colombians have attended climate camps in Germany and visited union miners in England. Activists hope that by raising awareness about the labor, environmental, and social impacts of coal across continents, people — whether they depend on coal for energy and jobs, or blame coal for displacement and disease — will understand their mutual interests and work together to oppose further coal extraction and use.


Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist and author who focuses on energy, the environment, and labor issues. Find out more about her at .

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