Alan Oakes, the former head of BP Coal in Australia and a one- time deputy with British Coal, said that 27 of British Coal's best pits could produce coal at less than the cost of most imports within two years. This assumes the rapid introduction of internationally accepted techniques and more flexible working practices.
The report by Mr Oakes, on behalf of McCloskey Coal Information, suggests that 15 million tonnes of coal imports could be displaced by British Coal. The company's own rule of thumb equates 1 million tonnes of coal sales to a deep mine and 1,000 miners' jobs. However, the number of jobs saved would probably fall off later as British Coal's productivity improves.
The report could be highly embarrassing for the Government as two of the 10 pits earmarked for closure in January - Trentham and Betws - are on the 'best 27' list. The Department of Trade and Industry is refusing to consider whether any of these 10 doomed pits could be saved as part of its review of energy policy in the UK. Ten of an additional 21 pits due for closure before the end of March are on the Oakes list of the best.
Meanwhile, the Government played down talk of up to 100,000 job losses because of its plan to close 31 pits. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment that the knock-on effect would be nearer 26,000, although this figure did not include the potential impact on coal-fired power stations.
The pounds 75m earmarked by ministers for employment measures in the areas affected would mean that 'most miners should succeed in finding alternative employment, although not immediately', she said.
Most pitmen were relatively young skilled workers with good employment records. They would however displace some unemployed people with fewer qualifications.
Under questioning from Greville Janner, the select committee chairman, Mrs Shephard admitted that she was told about the colliery closure plan by one of her officials the week before it was announced, rather than by Cabinet colleagues. It was 'always helpful' to have notice of such events, she told the committee, but not always possible.
Earlier, the Commons trade and industry committee was told that closure of the 31 pits would cut jobs in 50 British mining equipment companies by two- thirds to just under 7,000. It would be 'devastating' to small and medium-sized companies and drive bigger ones to shift manufacturing overseas to more active coalfields.
That reduction would come on top of the 50,000 jobs lost in the industry since 1987 that has already produced a 69 per cent cut in the workforce to 22,150, the Association of British Mining Equipment Manufacturers told the committee.
The mining equipment industry's warning came as the committee explored with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd the impact of rapidly closing down Britain's Magnox nuclear stations to increase the coal burn.
Some 3,000 of the 4,600 jobs at BNFL dependent on Magnox would go in the short-term, the company said.
Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, yesterday called for a national day of action by 8 million union members in protest at the pit closures.
But Bill Jordan, leader of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said calls for industrial action were a 'throwback to the bad old days'. Both were speaking at a conference called by the TUC as part of its 'Campaign for Jobs and Recovery'.
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