Industry in crisis: The Mines: British Coal to increase imports

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The Independent Online
BRITISH COAL is expanding its import capacity in spite of the massive job losses and pit closures disclosed on Tuesday. The company recently signed a deal to import up to 500,000 tons of coal a year on the Thames for industrial customers in the South-east.

Industry sources say that the company could be importing 3 million tons annually within a few years to fend off competition in the market for domestic and industrial coal. The company has other import arrangements allowing it to take coal from Poland to supply households with coal.

British Coal fears that it may lose a large chunk of its industrial coal market, which is about 6 million tons a year. National Power and PowerGen, which are investing heavily in port facilities for coal for electricity generation, are also interested in screening out coal suitable for home and industrial use. National Power recently embarked on a joint venture with Ashdown Minerals at Tilbury, on the Thames, to attack the coal market. PowerGen said: 'Our coal trading is not very significant at present but it could develop in future.'

Some of the British Coal mines earmarked for closure because of the increased use of gas in electricity generation also supply other industries, including cement and paper manufacturers. British Coal said that, where possible, it would switch these customers to surviving UK collieries but said coal would be brought in from abroad where necessary to satisfy customers' requirements.

Although the main reason for British Coal's accelerated demise is the 'dash for gas' in power generation, National Power and PowerGen also have ambitious plans for importing foreign coal.

National Power, which has said it wants the capacity to import up to half of its total coal requirements, is planning a facility at Bristol which will be able to handle 5 million tons a year. The company already has the ability to import up to 6 million on the Thames Estuary and 3 million at Hull. Now it is looking for more import capacity on the east coast.

PowerGen's main facility is at Kingsnorth in Kent, where it can take in 6 million tons of coal a year, but it also has a 1 million-ton import site at Immingham on Humberside. In preparation for the increase in the use of foreign coal, PowerGen is now building a 5 million-ton handling operation at Gladstone Dock, Merseyside.

In addition to importing more coal, it is believed that the generators have enough coal stocks to last a year. National Power alone has around 20 million tons and the UK total, including that at pits, is around 47 million. It is expected that the Government will lower the amount which must be held for security of supply from the current level of six months' supply.