Outlook: Coal is a dirty word these days

Things are getting distinctly dirty down at the bottom of the mineshaft, and we are not talking here about the odd spot of coal dust on Richard Budge's neatly pressed overalls. The chief executive of RJB Mining has told ministers that he would sooner fill the shafts with concrete than hand his pits over to rival operators. Whitehall hints darkly, meanwhile, that the unpublished Department of Trade and Industry report into the collapse of Mr Budge's former company might see the light of day unless he plays ball. If that were not enough, scurrilous rumours abound that one generator in particular would come to the rescue of both ministers and miners by purchasing more coal if, in return, it were allowed to buy a regional electricity company.

The demise of the British coal industry is proving a rich seam of political intrigue, backstabbing and double-dealing. But this much at least is clear. There is no love lost between the three main players in this epic drama, New Labour, Mr Budge and the generators. This makes tomorrow's Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee hearings a must for all bloodsport fans.

The most remarkable feature of the affair is how poorly the Government has handled it. Instead of being drawn into a sideshow about the merits of subsidising the coal industry, ministers need to play the environmental card. Coal has no future if Britain is serious about meeting its targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Why not concentrate on the good news, which is that the 5,000 mining jobs likely to go could be replaced twice over through energy efficiency schemes? With the Kyoto earth summit at the top of the bill, ministers have a God-given opportunity to play the ace.

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