A group of friends and I have just shut down England’s largest opencast coal mine. Production has ceased and no coal is leaving the mine.
Currently I’m locked onto a 500-tonne excavator, sitting in the middle of a pit that makes the Vale of Mordor look like a Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But it’s not Mordor, it’s a coal mine in otherwise-beautiful Northumberland, and it’s on land belonging to a Peer of the Realm, Viscount Matt Ridley.
You heard that right. I’m sitting in a filthy opencast coal mine that’s already dug up a million tonnes of the black stuff, on land belonging to a Conservative member of the House of Lords.
The days when coal mining paid a wage to millions of working-class men in flat caps is long gone. These days, it lines the pockets of landed millionaires and rich private businesses.
And that’s why I and my friends have decided to break the law to shut this coal mine down. Because it’s destroying the planet to feather the nests of an elite few.
Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. Our continued burning of it is cooking the planet.
But Viscount Matt Ridley – who calls himself an ‘ecomodernist’ and ‘rational optimist’, and who was chair of Northern Rock when the bank went bust – doesn’t care too much for global warming. He declares himself a ‘lukewarmist’, says fossil fuels are “not a bad thing” and argues that “climate change is good for the world”.
He admits to having not just one, but two enormous coal mines on his 12-square-mile ancestral estate in Northumberland. But that doesn’t stop him shamelessly spouting his climate-sceptic nonsense from a weekly column in The Times and from the red leather benches of the House of Lords.
And whilst Lord Ridley is relatively open about his vested interests, he remains rather coy about the precise sums he earns from these vast opencast coal mines. One careful investigation estimates his earnings from coal to be between £3.1 million and £4.1 million annually. If the venerable Lord can disclose differently, I would be delighted to make the correction.
But Lord Ridley’s coal mines merely illustrate the wider problem we have with coal in the UK.
There are, astonishingly, still some 30-odd opencast coalmines operating in Britain today. They scar landscapes and disrupt communities from south Wales to the Scottish borders.
The millions of tonnes of coal they produce power our 10 remaining coal power stations, which belch both noxious poisons and greenhouse gases into our air, adding to lung disease as well as dangerously altering the world’s climate.
The UK Government has made some tentative hints that it might, one day, phase out the frankly Victorian practice of burning coal to generate electricity.
But so far, it’s been too shy to say when it will do so, and what its plan is for ending coal in the UK.
The coal mining companies aren’t waiting for the Government to act. They’re ploughing ahead regardless, putting in fresh applications to dig up Britain’s countryside to devour still more coal.
The wealthy company that operates the coal mines on Matt Ridley’s estate, Banks Mining, has recently made a proposal to open a new, 3-million tonne opencast coal mine at Druridge Bay – an exquisite stretch of coastline just north of where I’m currently locked on to an excavator.
The local community are up in arms about the proposal, which will, they fear, devastate the landscape and wreck the region’s tourism – quite apart from adding to the stock of fossil fuels we simply can’t afford to burn.
None of this need happen if the Government grows a backbone, stands up to the coal companies and puts in place a clear plan to end coal.
So these are the reasons why I’m breaking the law today, sitting in a hole in the ground in Northumberland, locked onto a coal mining machine as the rain falls gently around me. To issue a small protest against the unreason of opencast mining, and defend a patch of England from its blight. To demand Lord Ridley come clean about how coal fuels his climate sceptic views. And to call on the Government to get some guts, and end our outdated reliance on Old King Coal.
To more information and live updates, visit www.endcoalnow.com and follow @ViscoutRidley on Twitter