Sometimes in politics, at least for those of us who have been around for a fair time and have long memories, you come across politicians who you can only assume must think people are stupid or inhabit worlds where recollection doesn’t stretch back more than a fortnight.
When I first started becoming involved in politics, nothing more exciting than a bit of leafletting in the 1987 General Election the attack lines of the Tories back then after having been in power for eight years was very much to concentrate on attacking Labour for events in the 1970’s.
That’s a little taster about this post. We’re going to rake up something that one would presume David Cameron should be aware of and if not then here’s a little history lesson to go with his latest publicity stunt, sorry, meant to say informed and well thought through policy initiative.
From the BBC today. Cameron announces how the development of ‘green coal’ or to be more precise systems that allow the capture of carbon emissions from the burning/gasification of coal and subsequent safe storage, yes I know, not quite as catchy as ‘green coal’ but more accurate.
Your humble Penguin takes a keen interest in energy policy, in particular energy related security issues and this announcement by Cameron brought back a few memories from a conversation I had with my father in the early 90’s.
My father and I don’t always agree on every subject but I respect him as a very intelligent man who has an uncanny ability to see things long into the future. He also has an amazing ability to recall conversations and information from decades past, something I myself seem to have inherited.
So back in 1993 when Michael Heseltine as Trade Secretary was announcing what was in effect the death of the British coal industry, my fathers reaction was this:
“The stupid f*ckers! You wait and see, in 20 years time when all the North Sea gas is running out and we’ll have to import it all from bloody Russia they’ll realise they’ve dropped a b*llock. It’s all very well saying these new gas power stations are cleaner than coal but we’ve (as in British) been developing clean coal technology for years and you mark my words if the b*stards don’t pull all the funding on that too. You watch, in 20 years time we’ll have to go back to coal and we’ll pay for it because the mines will have flooded and we’ll have to buy the technology that we started back off some other country because those b*stards (the Tories) are too f*cking stupid to see what’s coming.”
You can probably guess that my father felt quite strongly on the issue and no, he’s not an ex-miner.
OK, it’s now almost 15 years later but apart from the timescale, I think my father pretty much got it right. The Tories through what I can only deduce was a political motivation, brought about the demise of our coal industry. They didn’t foresee what, if it was obvious to my father back then, presumably some expert at the time might have told them. Put simply, policy decision made back in 1993 following on from what occurred in the 1980’s led us into a position where we as a country are in an increasingly difficult position regarding our ability to generate our own energy requirements and more specifically threatens our future energy security.
With this recollection in mind I decided to have a little look around about what happened and came up with some interesting articles well worth a read. First up comes from the archives of the New Scientist in April 1993. That June, this article also appeared in the New Scientist by Ian Fells, professor of energy conversion at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, of which I particularly like the final couple of paragraphs:
” For a country with extensive coal reserves, why isn’t Britain developing its technology by way of a demonstration plant? On the idea of building a clean-coal demonstration plant in Britain, the White Paper points out that such a venture would ‘not materially affect the number of coal mines kept in operation in the UK this decade’ and so could not justify supporting it.
So, Britain watches its initial lead in this vital area slip away to its competitors. Long-term R&D is the major casualty of the ‘short termism’ engendered by a market-led energy policy. Britain is in danger of destroying its innovative industrial base and becoming an offshore ‘banana republic’ buying licences for high technology engineering from its European partners. The government will be forced to balance the books by turning UK Ltd into a gigantic theme park with tourists visiting sanitised coal mines and gas works to see how Great Britain was in the old days.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself really.
So what did exactly happen to Britain’s leading edge technological advantage in the area of clean coal? The actual process wasn’t all that new. The original concept dates back to the 1960’s but in the days of the nationalised coal industry there was the Coal Research Establishment which formed part of the National Coal Board then British Coal Corporation. However with passing of the Coal Industry Act in 1995 it became the Coal Authority and was subsequently privatised.
Back in 1993 the research arm, the CRA found itself in difficulty because a substantial amount of its funding came from the industry which with the massive closure of pits led to less income meaning that for a short period the Government injected some funding with the usual reassurances that come before things get closed down.
Questions were asked in Parliament, notably on the 22nd March 1994 where the clearest indications of the level of importance the then Tory Government had regarding the development of coal technology can be seen in the statement by the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP after the token bit about how much money the Government is putting in:
“Precise funding needs after that will be agreed following the planned review of the programme involving the industry in 1995. We are also establishing the new Advisory Committee on Coal Research, to replace the coal task force and advise on United Kingdom coal research needs across the board.”
For those of a cynical nature you’ll probably all know what happened next. Industry wasn’t interested in the research and development after privatisation. They’d got the assets that they wanted and true to form the CRE (actual research part of it) closed in 1995, I think it still exists in name as some quango but as for actually doing any research it’s long gone, along with the clean coal technology that we had a chance to lead the world in. If you’re interested in a visual representation of what the Tories did to our research into clean coal technology you might want to have a look here. Caution, it’s depressing.
Of course it has been developed by other countries, notably Germany where they implemented the first ‘clean coal’ station but there again, the German’s didn’t have a Government that systematically went about destroying their coal industry like we did. Sad to think that Britain was in a prime position to dominate this emerging technology and now we’re reduced to buying back the fruits of that technology from the development of other countries into an area that we started. Let’s not get on to tilting trains either shall we?