GIANT canaries, drummers and a funeral march all descended on the Senedd in the latest twist in Wales’ long history with coal. 

Though the industry has been in long term decline it is at the centre of a current dispute between the Welsh and UK Governments and while there is political consensus on the shift away from fossil fuels, including coal, that could be threatened by debates on energy security. 

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which some fossil fuel proponents have sought to use to bolster the case for continued use of the UK’s carbon resources, a Welsh colliery has been in the eye of a political storm. 

The Welsh Government says it no longer wants to see coal extracted, and the UK Government says it is committed to significantly reducing its use, but despite that the owners of the Aberpergwm mine, near Glynneath, have permission to dig up a further 40 million tonnes. 

A dispute between the Welsh and UK governments over which has the power to intervene with the Coal Authority’s decision, taken in January, to license further operations at the mine didn’t much interest those who attended a small – but noisy – protest outside the Senedd on Wednesday. 

READ MORE: Row between Wales and Westminster over Aberpergwm mine

Pam Williams came with a friend dressed as a giant canary: “You know the connection with mines?” 

The yellow birds were used, as recently as the late Victorian period, to detect deadly gases underground and climate activists say they too are sounding a warning alarm and want all coal mining operations to cease. 

Pam Williams and a friend came dressed as giant canaries.

“We’ve been told, and we know, we need to keep all fossil fuels in the ground and unfortunately I don’t think that is happening,” said Pam holding, with her partner bird, a large banner calling for a ‘moratorium on coal’. 

Last week Pam and her friend travelled to the mine, again dressed as Canaries, as the climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion took action which, it says, saw some climbing the roof of buildings at the site. 

“We were trying to draw the attention of the security,” said Pam, who looked a little too old to be climbing fences and scaling buildings, of her outfit. 

Pam lives in Llanidloes, more than 70 miles north of the mine in Glynneath, but she was taken aback to be asked why its fate should concern her: “I’m part of a global community that’s going to be affected by climate change. You don’t have to live next door to it to care or be affected.” 

Some 30 protesters had gathered, in the rain, outside the Senedd in an event organised by climate campaign groups, including Friends of the Earth and Extinction Rebellion. A large number of police were on hand including mounted and armed officers who were stationed at the back entrance of the Senedd building. 

READ MORE: Fracking: UK Government should respect Welsh ban says Plaid MP

It was suspected the action at the mine last week may have led to the large police presence. 

This protest however was more about drama than disruption. A coffin, draped in the Welsh flag, was carried to the steps of the Senedd and laid to rest with a protester holding a smoke flare and declaring “a minute’s silence for all the children of Wales”. 

Despite the small numbers outside the issue is a pressing one for those inside the building. 

The Welsh Government signed an international agreement committing it to phasing out fossil fuel extraction at the United Nations COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in November. It hopes to reach ‘net zero’ before the UK target date of 2050. 

A protester holds a banner saying 'Coal proud past not future'.

Jane Dodds leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats told the rally carrying on with the mining as planned would scupper those climate targets. 

Anthony Slaughter, the leader of the Green Party in Wales, also attended and told The National that he wanted to see the Welsh Government show it is more than opposed in principle to the extension of the mine’s operations. 

“The Welsh Government has made the right noises,” he said of its consistent stance that it doesn’t support the continued operation of the mine which owners Energybuild says provides 160 well paid jobs plus 16 apprenticeships. 

On the issue of whether it is the Welsh Government, the UK administration or the Coal Authority that can determine the future of Aberpergwm, Slaughter is hopeful legal proceedings initiated by the UK wide Coal Action Network will provide some clarity.

READ MORE: 'Crises from Ukraine to energy are caused by one thing – capitalism'

But, as is often the case with the climate, Slaughter is concerned short term returns are being put ahead of the bigger picture and he doesn’t believe the colliery has a long term future. 

“We’re here outside the Senedd to let elected members know people are concerned, this is a big issue and if it’s allowed we will not achieve net zero by 2050.” 

Aberpergwm is the only producer of high grade anthracite in Western Europe and currently supplies the giant Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot, which employs some 4,000, but Slaughter doesn’t believe its product will be required by the steel works. 

“The UK Government is committed to decarbonising steel by 2035,” said Slaughter who says steel producers in Finland are already producing without burning fossil fuels and he said plans for doing so at Port Talbot were already being discussed in 2016. 

A protester holds a bilingual sign calling for a 'renewable future'.

Slaughter insisted new jobs, in green industries, can be created to compensate for losses for the closure of traditional industries such as Aberpergwm, a message repeated by Jane Dodds when she addressed the rally. 

READ MORE: Sophie Howe calls for focus on 'green jobs'

The Lib Dem leader also used a question in the Senedd, almost immediately after addressing the crowd outside, to ask the Welsh Government’s counsel general on the advice he had given the cabinet on its powers related to the mine. 

Mick Antoniw repeated that as the mine’s original licence was granted before powers over energy were transferred to Wales in 2018 the government cannot intervene. 

But according to Antoniw the “fundamental issue” is that the Coal Authority has a duty to “maintain a coal mining industry in the UK”. 

He said: “We’ve been calling on the UK Government to change this duty in the Coal Industry Act to reflect the climate emergency.” 

The Labour minister insisted that despite the government insisting it cannot act in the case of Aberpergwm’s operations: “Our policy is clear we want to bring a managed end to the extraction and use of coal for thermal burning.  

Some of the posters at the rally including one in Welsh which says the best coal 'cwtsh' or store is under the earth

“We are committed to working with the fossil fuel extraction industry on the transition to business models that are sustainable for the long term and support decarbonisation.” 

Outside as a drum circle maintained a constant beat Clare James, of Extinction Rebellion and part of the coalition that organised the protest, was pleased at how the day had gone.  

“Direct action to draw attention, mentally and physically takes a lot out of you, but to have everyone turn out today, the Samba band and the slow march, it all takes time and effort and these are all volunteers, it is pleasing.” 

But the purpose of the event is to influence decision makers and for James the Welsh Government’s words and policy positions will count for little without results: “We call the Welsh Government hypocrites. They signed up to a programme at COP so what will they look like now? 

“Even if the Welsh Government can’t make the decision they should be protesting against this and should be taking action.” 

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