Coal has a bad rep these days. Once those little black nuggets represented a community and way of life. But following the closure of most of England and Wales' deep-pit mines after the miner's strike of 1984-85, the detrimental affects of burning the fuel came more under discussion and it's generally agreed now that burning it is very, very bad for the environment. Largely gone are the days when social justice activists stood hand-in-hand in solidarity with striking miners, putting two fingers up to Margaret Thatcher. Now a more common sight is activists trying to stop the mining and burning of coal: shutting down coal fuelled power stations, blocking the trains that shuttle the stuff around the country and on Monday they shut down one of the last remaining UK mines.
About two dozen activists stopped all operations a mine in Shotton, north of Newcastle, on Monday, blocking the site entrance and locking themselves to coal diggers. The mine, which is the largest of its kind in England, sits on land that is owned by the Tory peer, Times columnist Lord Ridley, which added a toff-bashing twist to the simple environmentalists vs coal angle of the protest. Ridley is also known for his controversial opinions on climate change, penning such articles as "Why Climate Change Is Good for the World" and "Fossil Fuels Will Save the World (Really)".
The activists, calling themselves "Matt Ridley's Conscience", raided the 340 acre open-pit mine early in the morning and stopped operations for almost a whole day. VICE got exclusive access to the day's events.
It started at 4.45AM, when the team I was with set off from Newcastle. Bleary eyed, we were dropped-off near the mine at about 5.30AM and walked through a wood and clambered over earth banks to get to the side of the mine, where we crawled up to the edge and worked out how to get down, each side of the thing being about a five-story drop.
Soon, we'd worked that out and were on our way down, running crouched, as though crouching behind zero cover would somehow help us elude detection by the mine's security guards.
Once into the deep part of the mine, the activists started searching for their target: coal-excavators, the massive 50-tonne machines that scrape coal out of the earth; after walking for about two kilometres, they found one.
These machines mine coal on an industrial level; just a few of them have a daily output equivalent to thousands of human miners, putting the humble pick-axe to shame. Environmentalist website, DeSmog UK, estimates that Ridley's land contains upwards of 8.3 million tonnes of coal with a market value of over £300 million. These machines get it out of the ground as fast as possible.
The activists quickly clambered onboard, threw a banner over the edge and proceeded to lock themselves to the machine's railings with D-locks around their necks.
Guy, one of the activists who'd locked himself to the machine told me what the aim of this was.
"Coal is cooking the planet; we need to keep it in the ground," he said, sitting D-locked in front of the excavator's cab.
"This coal mine is on the land of climate-sceptic Lord Matt Ridley. He says climate change is good for the environment; he says fossil fuels are not a bad thing and funnily enough he owns this land that has an open-cast coal mine on it. His ancestral estate stretches for what we understand to be 12 square miles; this mine is only one of two he has and the company that runs this mine, Banks Mining, has just put in planning permission for another coal mine further up the coast."
"Ridley needs to come clean about how much money he's making; his climate scepticism is all part of this business model. We're staying here for as long as possible and if we get arrested it's all in the cause", Guy said.
Pretty soon the mine's security guards were on the scene trying to work out what had happened and what they could do to stop the disruption.
Lee Vanderwell, a 60-year-old welder turned miner, expressed what many of the onlooking miners seemed to be thinking. "Everyone's entitled to their opinion", he said, "but we're entitled to earn a living. If there were an alternative [to burning coal], I'd be all for it but nuclear is not an alternative."
After a while, the mine workers asked me to leave and offered me a lift the the mine's main entrance, where, it turned out, activists had blockaded the road. They had locked themselves together with concrete filled drainage pipes and were holding a banner across the road.
"Firstly we want to stop coal getting in and out of the site and this is the only site entrance... this site is a huge source of the UK's carbon emissions. We need to keep 80 per cent of current known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground if we want to have a safe, liveable planet. That means no new coal mines, no more burning coal and phasing out coal by 2023," Ellen, who was locked into an arm tube said.
Ellen said one of the aims was to highlight the link between Ridley's views on climate change and the fact that he makes money off of a massive coal mine on his land. "He doesn't hide it but he also doesn't really talk about it. He doesn't seem to think it's relevant to his climate scepticism. He's been reprimanded before by the House of Lords for not disclosing his interests in the fossil fuel industry."
"We want people to know that there's someone who sits in government, who has a say in energy policy, who owns an open-cast coal mine on his ancestral land".
Of course, Mark Dowdall, the manager at the mine didn't see it that way. He said, "We think this protest today is misguided, particularly as its stopping local people from working, stopping providing the much needed coal that we still need on this transition to a low carbon economy."
"The north-east is a mining community... and the reality is: if you leave this coal in the ground, it will be replaced by coal that's imported from overseas and that seems a nonsense to us, to be putting local peoples' jobs at risk."
The activists stayed chained to the diggers and "arm-tubed" together for around nine hours before voluntarily unlocking themselves and surrendering to the police, who arrested nine of them.
The activists were pretty chuffed with the day's events – "we've achieved so much with just a month's planning", Tom, one of the activists said the night before, apparently a relatively short period of time for an action such as this; and the arrests seemed to be taken as an inevitability by the group.
According to Lord Ridley "The chief benefits of global warming include: fewer winter deaths"; which sounds like it might just about make sense until you think about all the drought and crop failures that could be coming our way. It seems that there might be a more direct benefit at play here. That said, Ridley has insisted that he barely makes any money from the mine because the coal on his land belongs to the state. Nevertheless, the action highlighted that someone who spends a lot of time telling everyone to stop fussing about climate change happens to own an enormous coal mine, which seems like a fair thing to point out.
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