Timeline: A decade of decline for UK coal

Matthew Hall 9 December 2020 (Last Updated December 8th, 2020 07:15)

With August’s closure of the Bradley coal mine in Durham, the United Kingdom’s formerly prolific coal mining industry is all but dead and buried. With less than a handful of small coal mines still in operation, cleaner forms of power generation are increasingly leaving coal behind and policy decisions seem to precipitate the end of British coal mining. We chart the past decade of notable closures, events, and policies for UK coal mining.

Timeline: A decade of decline for UK coal
The UK boasts just a handful of small coal mines still in operation. Credit: Tyna Janoch

The UK has a long history of coal mining, with expansive deposits of the material across Britain providing the fuel for the nation’s Industrial Revolution, and a position as the first country to generate electricity using coal almost 140 years ago. 

But the country’s once-booming coal industry – almost 1.2 million people worked as coal miners in 1920 – has been in sharp decline for the better part of 50 years, with the past decade alone seeing several closures and policy decisions that could form the final nails in UK coal mining’s coffin.

7 March 2013 – Daw Mill closure

Warwickshire’s Daw Mill began operations in 1956 and was operated by the private company UK Coal, which acquired the bulk of British coal assets after the privatisation of British Coal in 1994.

In 2013, following a major fire at Daw Mill that broke out more than 500m underground on 22 February, and raged for several weeks before being brought under control and extinguished, UK Coal announced on 7 March that it would close the mine rather than fund repair work. It was estimated that repairing the damage caused by the fire would take up to six months and, with the mine due to close in 2014 regardless, repair work – and a subsequent review to restart commercial production – was deemed impractical.

A representative of UK Coal, Kevin McCullough, told the BBC in 2013 that the fire was “on a scale not seen for decades – the industry has seen nothing like it for between 30 and 50 years.”

Most of Daw Mill’s 650 workers were made redundant by the closure. 

26 August 2014 – Whitehaven Coking Coal Project receives funding

In August 2014, West Cumbria Mining announced the completion of a £14.7m private equity financing for its Whitehaven Coking Coal Project – later known as Woodhouse Colliery. The project began as a venture to explore for high quality coking coal under the sea off the coast of Whitehaven, Cumbria.

Inferred resources dated to 2013 suggested that the mine could produce over 3Mt of coal per year from a 77-square-mile coalface under the sea. Advocates of mining the site have touted its ability to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported coal – in 2019, the UK imported 6.8Mt of coal.

Mark Kirkbride, CEO of West Cumbria Mining, said on completion of the financing: “The company is delighted to announce the completion of financing for its Whitehaven Coking Coal Project. This is testament to the strong fundamentals of the project and the potential for this to become the next substantial, low cost, metallurgical coal mining operation in the UK.”

The project would be England’s first deep coal mine since 1987.

18 November 2015 – UK becomes first major country to announce coal phase-out

UK Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced that the UK would close all its coal-fired power plants by 2025, with proposals to replace coal power generation with gas and nuclear plants. The announcement came less than two weeks before the start of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which negotiated the Paris Agreement.

It followed a number of policy decisions dating back several years – the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 put into law the government’s commitment to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and in 2009 the government mandated that new coal power plants be fit with carbon capture and storage technology. The profitability of coal-fired power plants had been inhibited by government policy, but Rudd’s announcement essentially formed the death knell for the creation of new coal plants.

18 December 2015 – Closure of Kellingley Colliery

“The coal from Kellingley will flow like a black river – for the rest of this century, and beyond,” said a promotional video for North Yorkshire’s Kellingley Colliery, which opened in 1965. That didn’t quite pan out, the mine was closed at the end of 2015 and capped off three months later.

The closure of Kellingley marked the end of deep coal mining in the UK. The colliery’s operator, UK Coal, had proposed a three-year extension to operations at Kellingley and a similar extension at Thoresby Colliery in Nottinghamshire. However, Minister for Business and Enterprise Matt Hancock said that the £338m required to extend both collieries “does not represent value for money”. Both closures represented the loss of around 1,300 coal mining jobs.

Coal mining in the UK had been struggling for some time as it became more economical for coal-fired power stations to import coal from abroad. 

21 April 2017 – Britain goes a day without coal

Britain achieved its first ever full day without burning coal to generate power since the first coal-powered generator was switched on in the 1880s. The fuel’s use in power generation had already been rapidly declining as other power sources increased their share of the country’s energy mix, and Britain’s previous record for the longest continuous period without coal was 19 hours, which was achieved in May 2016.

National Grid UK system operator Cordi O’Hara described the achievement as “a watershed moment in how our energy system is changing”.

12 June 2019 – UK legislates for net-zero by 2050 target

Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the government had bound by law its target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, becoming the first G7 country to legislate a target of that scale. The legislation overruled the prior target to reduce emissions 80% by the same year.

“As the first country to legislate for long-term climate targets, we can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change,” said May. “We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions – now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. 

“This country led the world in innovation during the industrial revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

27 February 2020 – Drax announces end of coal for power generation

British power company Drax announced that almost half a century of power generation using coal at its North Yorkshire power station would end in 2021, four years ahead of the UK’s 2025 deadline for phasing out coal power. 

“Ending the use of coal at Drax is a landmark in our continued efforts to transform the business and become a world-leading carbon negative company by 2030. Drax’s journey away from coal began some years ago and I’m proud to say we’re going to finish the job well ahead of the government’s 2025 deadline,” said Drax CEO Will Gardiner in a statement. 

10 June 2020 – Britain’s two coal-free months

Britain marked two months without burning coal to generate power – a decade prior, coal formed 40% of the UK’s electricity generation. Part of this two month stint came from a drop in electricity demand due to nationwide lockdown measures implemented to suppress Covid-19, but also the longer term rise in renewables. As of June 2020, renewables had been responsible for 37% of electricity supplied to the grid compared to 35% for all fossil fuels.

17 August 2020 – Closure of Bradley mine

Following the closure of Kellingley Colliery in 2015, almost all the coal mines remaining in the UK were surface mines. The Bradley mine in Durham only began production in 2018, when mine operator Banks Group began extracting 550,000 tonnes of coal.

In late 2019, Banks Group submitted a planning application to extend the site, but after this was rejected by Durham County Council, the company decided to close the mine. Banks extracted around 340,000 of its targeted 500,000 tonnes of coal.

The closure of Bradley leaves only the Hartington mine in Derbyshire as the last surface mine in England, though there are plans for Hartington to be closed too.