The Institute of British Geographers' conference: Decline of British coal industry 'is inevitable'

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The Independent Online
The British coal industry is in its death throes, and there should be no fears about switching over to replacement fuels such as natural gas and oil, a leading expert on energy resources said yesterday.

Professor Peter Odell, former director of the Rotterdam Centre for International Energy Studies, told the Institute of British Geographers' conference at London University's Royal Holloway college in Egham, Surrey, that concern about the extent of oil and gas reserves was misplaced.

He said British energy policy for the last 35 years had consisted of a series of 'Canute-like' attempts to prevent the demise of the deep- mined coal industry. But far from running out of gas or oil, Britain and the world were 'running into' plentiful supplies of both.

'Ninety per cent of the coal industry has gone already in terms of employment, and two-thirds in terms of production,' the professor said. 'In a high-wage economy, the decline of deep-mined coal is inevitable in competition with oil and gas.' Instead of 'throwing good money after bad', Britain should embrace the kind of move away from coal implicit in Michael Heseltine's pit closures announcement.

Professor Odell said difficulties associated with alternative supplies - of gas or oil - were essentially products of the imagination. 'There is no evidence of gas running out: for the past four decades in Europe, since gas was first used, each succeeding decade has seen between twice and four times as much gas added to reserves as has actually been used . . .

'There is at least enough gas to last 25 years and perhaps for a decade beyond, even before further exploration has taken place.' At the same time, new technologies were reducing the cost of prospecting, and improving yields.

Professor Odell said the extent of potential gas-bearing rocks in the UK and world-wide suggested significant further resources.

His willingness to sacrifice the coal industry was challenged by Dr Derek Spooner, of Hull University, who said that despite long- term prospects, it would be economic madness to throw away the pounds 7bn worth of investment. 'We should intervene in the short term to give coal some breathing space and give it some protection in the energy market, while long-term problems are addressed,' he said.

Britain missed an opportunity to encourage energy conservation when the electricity industry was privatised, Dr Susan Owens, of Cambridge University, said. Instead, the Government had created an industry in which there was every incentive to increase the supply of energy, but very little incentive to save it. She called for intervention to 'correct the market failures' which militated against investment in energy efficiency.