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Coal Mining

Volume 464: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

1. When he last met representatives of the coal industry to discuss prospects for the deep coal mining industry. (156868)

In the past year, Ministers have regularly met coal industry representatives to discuss a range of issues under the auspices of the coal forum, and they will continue to do so.

The Minister might be aware that there has been discussion in the coal forum about an indicative figure for coal—a target figure for domestic coal of, say, 20 million tonnes per annum, split roughly between deep-mine coal and open-cast coal. What is his view on that? Does he support it?

My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the coal forum. We welcome the engagement of all the different coal industry stakeholders through the forum. I am aware of the discussions that my hon. Friend describes. Let me say that we recognise the continuing importance of coal, particularly to electricity generation in the UK. He might be aware that last year coal generated an average of nearly 40 per cent. of the UK’s electricity, rising to 50 per cent. at peak prices. As he will know from the energy White Paper published last year, we continue to recognise the importance of coal. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy will want to discuss my hon. Friend’s point with him when he visits.

Open and deep-cast coal production now barely meet a quarter of total UK demand, and the figure is dropping every year. Regardless of whether demand for coal increases or falls in the years ahead, the truth is that domestic production will continue to fall. Rather than getting caught up in discussions about how to slow the decline in domestic production, should not the Minister’s focus be on what will happen to our coal-fired power plants, and on whether the development of carbon capture technology can be accelerated in time to create a new generation of clean coal-fired power stations? Such stations will help to protect us against an over-reliance on gas-fired generation.

The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises the importance of carbon capture and storage. As a result, I am sure that he will welcome the announcement made in the pre-Budget report. We see considerable potential for carbon capture and storage and think that it has a significant contribution to make in helping us deal with the carbon dioxide issues that we face; it will also help our energy industry more generally.

Is the Minister aware that most remaining privatised coal companies own vast acres of land around their pits? Is he further aware that in recent times some pits have been closed and vast sums made out of them as property? Many of us believe that pits are being shut to make money as property developments. Will the Minister keep a wary eye on the few remaining companies involved in the production of coal? It is important to exploit the huge deposits of coal underground, rather than being concerned about the land on top.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long-standing championing of the coal industry. We certainly continue to keep a wary eye on the prospects for the coal industry in the UK. One of the reasons we established the coal forum was precisely to enable ongoing discussions with all the different stakeholders in the coal industry, to understand the pressures on businesses and the attitudes of those who work in the industry, and to make sure that they are properly taken into account in our assessments of its future needs.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that the crisis in energy is likely to come between 2012 and 2015, when we will see the simultaneous decommissioning of coal-fired stations and of some nuclear stations. It is therefore important that we ensure that the investment in new technologies is continued; there are, for example, integrated gasification combined cycle and carbon capture and storage projects. The Government are going to help with a demonstration plant, but we need more such plants if we are to ensure that such technology will be available to tackle climate change. If we are to tackle that problem, the transference of such technology has to be involved. Will the Minister ensure that we will be likely to see more than one demonstration plant for carbon capture and storage?

My hon. Friend will know that we are working extremely hard not only on carbon capture and storage but on a variety of other low-carbon technologies. We are, for example, seeking a trebling of energy from renewable sources. We recognise coal’s contribution to the energy mix, and through a variety of forums, not least the coal forum, we will continue to discuss the UK’s future energy needs with all stakeholders.