In the run-up to the historic Paris summit on climate change, energy secretary Amber Rudd made a startling pledge: the Government would “set out proposals to close coal by 2025”.
It was “perverse” and “simply not sustainable” for Britain to be so dependent on the “dirtiest fossil fuel”, she said in a speech in November, earning plaudits from environmentalists around the world and putting the UK at the forefront of the fight against global warming.
However, The Independent can reveal the Government is considering allowing coal-fired power stations to continue to operate if they can reduce their emissions by a certain amount using fledgling carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This would not necessarily be 100 per cent of the plant's emissions.
The Government had planned to publish a consultation document setting out its plans this spring, but publication has been delayed by several months amid impassioned lobbying by the coal industry, which has complained to ministers that it is in "crisis".
However, a Whitehall source suggested the news might not be quite as bad as the industry was expecting or quite as good as environmentalists had hoped.
"If coal is partially abated, if you have installed CCS, could you carry on burning coal? These are all the points the consultation is going to try to address and set out what would be allowed and seek people's views on it," he said.
"The consultation will very clearly set out if you have got a coal power station basically what happens after 2025... if you are fitting it with CCS, it will set a level of sorts at which this will not be allowed.
"The consultation will make clear what you can do with coal beyond 2025."
The insider stressed the Government could still decide coal plants would only be allowed to operate after 2025 if emissions were reduced to zero, saying discussions about this were "pure speculation" at this stage.
The source spoke to The Independent after the Government was contacted about the recently published minutes of a meeting between coal industry representatives and energy minister Andrea Leadsom.
According to the minutes, Ms Leadsom “encouraged” the coal companies to take part in the consultation process to help retrospectively define what Ms Rudd had actually meant in her speech.
Despite the energy secretary speaking about phasing out “coal”, four out of the 15 times she used the word she referred to “unabated" coal.
At the time, many took this to mean that coal-fired power stations would not be allowed to operation unless the greenhouse gas emissions they produce were entirely prevented from going into the atmosphere by CCS.
However, according to the industry meeting’s minutes, Ms Leadsom invited the coal companies present to think about a different definition.
“She encouraged industry to engage in the consultation eg what is ‘unabated coal’?” the minutes said, a question that implies coal power plants might be allowed to operate even if they were only partially abated.
According to provisional figures, burning coal in the UK was responsible for 82.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2015, about 20 per cent of the total figure for the country of 404.7 million tonnes.
Despite this, the minutes of the meeting, held in parliament in February, reveal the industry had complained it was "currently in crisis" with low gas prices and the high Carbon Price Floor (CPF) – a financial mechanism designed to recognise the true cost of carbon – "pricing coal plants out of the market".
"Many [within the industry] felt the CPF makes the UK uncompetitive with the rest of the EU as it is higher than the EU Emissions Trading System [a similar mechanism to the CPF]. It was also thought that it does little to reduce carbon emissions, as it merely displaces carbon generation outside the UK," the minutes said.
"Many of those present (but not all) would like to see the CPF reduced."
Carbon capture and storage was once seen as a potential saviour of not only the coal industry but the planet. However, it has proved difficult to build a system that works and is also cost-effective.
A £1bn competition to develop effective CCS technology was scrapped by the Government in November last year, just six months before the prize was due to be awarded. It had been announced four years ago and a number of companies, including Shell, were involved in projects designed to win the money.
The idea that Britain is going to stop burning coal has also not filtered through to planning law. Plans have been drawn up to create a huge opencast coal mine at Druridge Bay near Newcastle that would see the excavation of three million tonnes of coal by 2023.
Guy Shrubsole, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the minutes of the meeting showed the coal industry was lobbying the Government hard.
"It's very concerning that the Government continues to cosy up to the coal industry just when the world is recognising fossil fuels need to be left in the ground,” he said.
“Ministers shouldn't give in to special pleading from an industry that ought to be consigned to history – they need to enact their pledge to phase out coal power stations, and stop allowing opencast coal mines on UK soil.”
On Ms Leadsom’s suggestion that “unabated coal” was a term that had not been defined absolutely, Mr Shrubsole said: “It is a bit sort of suspicious sounding because what is there to define really?
“I think there’s really no other way of defining it than saying coal is coal."
And Rebecca Williams, a climate and energy specialist at WWF-UK, said: “The Government said it would phase out unabated coal use – and if it is serious about cutting emissions, that is precisely what it must do.
"Our Paris commitments demand a credible and specific plan to build a low-carbon economy. In that context it’s impossible to see how a relaxation of ministers’ domestic commitments on coal could be justified."
A spokesperson for the Department of Energy & Climate Change said: “The Government is absolutely committed to phasing out power production from unabated coal by 2025 and it is nonsense to suggest otherwise.
"The consultation on how we propose to do this will be published in the coming months."
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