Plan to boost use of coal will save pits, say MPs

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The Independent Online
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A PLAN to save around 21 pits threatened with closure, partly through government intervention to secure contracts for an extra 15 million tons of coal a year, will be discussed by an influential committee of MPs this week, writes Stephen Castle.

A first draft of the Trade and Industry select committee's report argues that the level of coal consumption can be maintained at between 55 million and 65 million tons a year.

When Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, outlined his plan to close most of Britain's pits last year, he said the total of 65 million would decline to 40 million at most next year and only 30 million tons thereafter.

In the detailed draft report, the committee chairman, Richard Caborn, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, proposes several methods of boosting coal consumption. Mr Heseltine has promised to take the committee's findings into account before producing his White Paper on energy policy.

The options include:

Legislation to postpone the advent of a free market in coal purchase until 1998, saving 15 million tons.

A levy on energy coming from France through the electricity 'interconnector', saving 6.5-7 million tons.

Tougher environmental controls on the use of orimulsion, a mixture of tar and water burned in power stations.

Diverting some of the pounds 1.2bn levy which subsidises the nuclear industry to coal technology development.

Sale of some coal stocks at cost price.

The committee has been sceptical about a straight subsidy for coal, which is likely to be resisted by the Treasury and Britain's European partners.

It does not accept arguments from the Department of Trade and Industry that a levy on the interconnector would fall foul of European law. However, MPs recognise that the Government would become embroiled in negotiations with the French and German governments over the issue.

A new challenge to British Coal's pit closure plans will be launched in the High Court tomorrow by the National Union of Mineworkers. Arthur Scargill, NUM president, told Welsh trade unionists yesterday he believed British Coal was in contempt of last month's court ruling that the fabric of pits should be maintained while the decision to close 31 pits was reviewed.

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