Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tech Talk - The evil in the hearts of men.

It was Edmund Burke who said "The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing," and with a hat-tip to Bishop Hill who drew my attention to the testimony, I think I had better say something.

Back in the days when I left school the United Kingdom, and most of Europe, was finally emerging from the brutal impacts of the Second World War. That recovery was helped immeasurably by the coal mining industry where thousands of men labored underground across Europe to ensure that adequate power was available to supply the needs of their various countries as industrial capacity was restored. As an eighteen-year old indentured Apprentice I laid on my back in 20-inch high coal to shovel the 15-tons of my ordained shift onto the conveyor, and braced the roof over my head with hand-sawn timber props to hold it for the following week, as we moved the longwall face forward. I was paid just over four pounds a week, but they did allow me, on Wednesdays, to go to the local Technical College in Ashington where I studied from 8 am until 8 pm. In the good weeks I could then go home, but in the alternate weeks I was either on foreshift, which meant that I went to college directly from the mine, or nightshift, when I went from the college to the mine and worked the following shift. I was woken more than once from an exhausted sleep having fallen into the corridor on the bus. Men died in those mines that I worked in to ensure that Britain had the power that it needed to recover and rebuild.

I thus find myself seriously affronted when this industry (and myself), are called evil by some academic from Oxford, no matter how illustrious his qualifications. In his testimony before the House of Lords Committee on “The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil “ last week, Professor Dieter Helm said
Of course one would want to make sure that regulators are on top of any environmental consequences that might flow from drilling, but I find it truly extraordinary that people want to ban fracking in a context where they are not prepared to ban coal mining, and indeed across Europe actually promote coal mining. When one thinks about the relative environmental impacts of the alternatives, coal mining is truly evil in comparison. I find it extraordinary that people are legally allowed to mine coal if you want at the same time to have a blanket ban on shale gas extraction.
It is almost a throw-away line, a necessary genuflection to the politically correct views of the day, a glib reference to transient effects long recognized and ameliorated by the coal industry over the past decades.

In those days of my youth, back in 1962, I walked into Newcastle to take the first bus of the morning from the terminal to the mine some 11 miles away at Seghill. It drove past pit heap after pit heap, and the impacts that Professor Helm is I believe referring to were real, and evident. The mine I worked in was over a hundred years old, and my father had been manager there when my brother was born. You walked stooped for part of the way to the face, since the roof of the passage was low, though the temperatures were pleasant, year round. Coal moved by conveyor and mine car, once hand-loaded from the blasted face, and supplies came in on carts hauled by pit ponies – another unforgettable memory. Hundreds of men worked at each mine, with a typical stint being a 10-yard length along the 200-yard measure of each longwall. We were not evil, the industry was not evil – it was vital and necessary. And it has changed.

Instead of walking there are now mine cars that haul workers to the face, electric trams have replaced ponies, and machines now do the work that muscle did back in those days. Where then is the evil? Is it that we are removing material from the ground? But unless you wish to go back to human densities of 70 people per hundred square miles of the hunter:gatherer era this must happen, for if they aren't grown resources must still be mined from the earth.

Yes there are transient effects, but if instead of dwelling on the ugliness of the excavation on some cold wet day when the shadows are right to emulate some hellish landscape, one were to go back five years after the mine has moved on (presuming that this is some surface site) then those wounds from current mines have gone. Laws require, and company self-interest demands, that land be restored. In parts of the world that can realize unexpected benefits as the land becomes more productive than it was before. You can no longer find much negative evidence of the underground mines in the area I worked in.

But the intent of this post is not to pat myself on the back, nor to run off on a rising rant, but rather to point out a problem which this broadly prevalent and stridently negative attitude is generating. Early this morning I received a call soliciting funds for the Footsteps Program at the University of Leeds, where I was awarded my degrees. But I had to gently break it to the young student calling that I could not participate because the University had done away with the Mining Engineering program through which I obtained my degrees. Further they have turned over the building, donated to the University by the industry and its workers for such studies, to the Art Department.

Leeds is not alone, the Royal School of Mines, merged now into Imperial College, London no longer offers mining courses.. The Welsh School of Mines, now the University of South Wales, no longer offers mining courses – there is but one place in the UK, at what was Cambourne School of Mines but is now the Penryn campus of the University of Exeter, where such a course still exists.

This image of the industry as an evil entity is ironic given, as Professor Helm pointed out:
Practically now, in Europe and the UK, we are switching from gas to coal. We have gone from about 28% of our electricity generated by coal a couple of years ago to about 40% today. Germany is bringing 7 to 8 gigawatts of new coal on to its system. Coal stations are being built across eastern Europe. The coal burn generally has gone up across Europe. Germany has gone from nuclear to coal and from gas to coal. This is a really serious environmental development across Europe.
For many years the rational pursuit of energy policy in many parts of the world was hindered by the demonization of nuclear power. It has taken that industry many years to work through the opprobrium that hindered realistic discussions of costs and benefits, and it is only now that some of the green community are beginning to recognize the irrationality of some of their earlier arguments. Yet the vilification of that industry cost it an entire generation of management and engineers who were persuaded to avoid such a career and who starved the industry of a strong supply of graduates. Now that engineers are needed there not that many with long experience, since the generation running the industry is retiring.

And here we are seeing a growth in the demand for coal, and yet – in part because of the demonization of the industry – there are but limited places where qualified engineers can be found, and at a time when advanced levels of technology will be called for as deposits get leaner, deeper and more difficult to extract there are even fewer places that can carry out the needed research into excavation technology.

Sadly academia and government seem to be unwilling to face the reality of the future that these circumstances will bring. Because the situation cannot be reversed in a year or two, as the knowledge base fades (as it now rapidly is) so it will become harder and harder to meet global needs. But no doubt academia will find a way to blame that on us miners, the few of them that will remain.

Someone told me once – “if you want to find gratitude, you’ll find it in the dictionary, between chump and sucker*.” But, one might have thought that for those who claim to predict the future, perhaps the occasional thought of self-interest might burble its way through, but not, I suppose, at Oxford.

*the statement has been modified for a general audience.“


  1. I agree that it's childish to be 'against coal' while not also being against all the things that are made from and powered by coal (modern industrial civilization). To be fair, some anti-coal people are more consistent in their views, however, impractical their imagined futures may be.

    In recent years, peak oil has bascially been 'fixed' by a massive increase in coal consumption in the US, EU, and China. It seems clear to me, that these trends can't continue for many more decades (one? when China is set to consume total world exports?).

    I recently watched this video by Simon Michaux about peak mining. I wondered whether you might have any pungent comments about it :-}

  2. Surely the criticism of coal is based primarily on Climate Change?

  3. But then some of us live in the quarter of the United States that has seen no rise in temperature in the last 150 years (checkout the state reports on the rhs).

    1. HO - I am a longtime x-lurker @ TOD. I have long admired reading from your extraordinary, prolific, wide ranging and insightful writings.

      I also can readily appreciate the umbrage one might take from disrespectful emotings retroactively hurled at an entire field of human endeavor. I was once permitted a visitation to a W. VA longwall operation, and was in awe of the men who made their livelihoods in such dangerous settings, so that so many unappreciative citizens could enjoy electricity. Lastly, your appreciation for the tragedy of the collective vilification of our nuclear engineers is spot on.

      Now then, my query concerns climate. I am an utterly convinced alarmist, and have been for 35 years. In your state weather data assessments, did you ever write directly to the phenomenal outlier year, 2012? Also, your certainly understand the physical vulnerability, the Achilles aspect, of the membrane pool blanket over the Arctic Ocean. A film of ice there isolates air from massively larger thermal capacities below it. The albedo difference is as great as found as well. We only have a third of that ice mass left, compared with when I first learned there was a problem with combusting carbon. Do these not move you in the least, towards concern with redirected jet streams, etc?

    2. Cody:
      You forget the ability to learn the lessons of history. In 1215 (Magna Carta year) is was on average 1 degC warmer in the UK than it is now. And when the Little Ice Age started in the 1300's about 10% of the UK population died from famine. We have been here before, and will (as a species) be here again, the Thule migrated from Alaska to Greenland chasing the whale in the Medieval Warming Period.