Pressure for cuts in coal emissions: Britain faces demands from other European nations for reductions in acid-rain gases that could force the closure of more pits

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MINISTERS are debating whether Britain can afford to offer further curbs in emissions of sulphur dioxide, a leading cause of acid rain. The price could be more pit closures.

The UK has been left almost isolated in difficult negotiations on a new acid rain treaty to replace one that expires this year. While the rest of Europe wants Britain to offer deeper cuts in pollution, the Government is mainly worried about making the privatisation of British Coal even more awkward.

Coal burning is responsible for more than 70 per cent of UK sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) emissions, with coal-burning power stations producing more than 60 per cent of the damaging pollutant. Britain is on target to cut its SO2 output by 60 per cent between 1980 and 2003 as coal-burning declines rapidly and pits shut down. The Government has offered to deepen this cut to 70 per cent by 2005, but this has not proved acceptable to other European nations.

Now the other nations taking part in the negotiations have asked Britain to promise an 80 per cent cut on the 1980 emissions level by 2010. Ministers in the Department of the Environment, the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry are arguing about whether they can accept this. With negotiations resuming in Geneva at the end of the month, they have less than a fortnight to reach agreement.

The Department of the Environment broadly favours the 80 per cent cut, recognising the damage that acid rain is doing to wildlife and buildings across much of Britain and to other European nations. But the Department of Trade and Industry has grave doubts about whether Britain should offer more than 70 per cent.

British Coal yesterday said a 70 per cent cut was a sufficiently challenging target and that '80 per cent would have a further impact on coal burning'.

Agreeing to an 80 per cent cut would mean that far into the next century all coal-burning power stations would either be working part- time or have highly expensive pollution abatement equipment fitted. This could well be what happens, even if the British Government sticks to its 70 per cent offer.

At present it makes no economic sense to fit this equipment: gas or low-sulphur coal imports can be burnt more cheaply without the need for it. The bleak outlook for UK coal is of environmental pressures contributing to further decline, with a dozen or fewer pits surviving compared to the present 30.

A realistic scenario is for only 20 million tonnes a year to be burnt around the end of the century, 15 million tonnes of this at Drax, in North Yorkshire and Ratcliffe-on- Soar, in Nottinghamshire, two large power stations which are having the pollution abatement equipment fitted. It is costing pounds 700m to install this at Drax alone, plus a further pounds 40m a year to run it.

The remaining 5 million tonnes of coal would be burnt 'dirtily' at ageing coal-fired stations working part-time. The only way in which significantly more could be burnt while complying with the 80 per cent SO2 curb - and stricter licences issued by Britain's own pollution inspectorate - would be to fit the pollution abatement equipment. On present trends, no power station owner could do that and remain competitive.

France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and Ireland also find themselves unwilling to offer the cuts the majority of European nations want. But the gap between what Britain has offered and what is being requested is greatest.