“From the outside, it feels like the Welsh Government really not wanting to own this decision.”

In 2016, a company by the name of Energybuild was granted a conditional license to expand a mine in Aberpergwm, Neath, and extract up to forty million tonnes of anthracite coal over the next twenty years.

The Global Energy Monitor research group estimates that the mine, one of Europe’s largest sources of the carbon-heavy anthracite coal variety used to make steel, could emit an eyewatering 100m tonnes of CO2 in that time.

Indeed, Aberpergwm supplies the nearby Tata Steelworks, the UK’s second highest source of carbon emissions as of 2019.

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Now, years later, final permits for the extraction work to go ahead are in the process of being approved, sparking a (by now, all too familiar) back and forth between the Welsh and UK governments over who should and could take responsibility.

Each has made public commitments to end the use of coal, in the face of a rapidly escalating climate crisis – and each claims that it lacks the power to stop the mine expansion.

The approval of a coal mine expansion in Aberpergwm has revealed the cracks in the UK and Welsh governments climate commitments. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Port Talbot's Tata steelworks is the main buyer of coal mined at Aberpergwm. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

For Anthony Slaughter, leader of the Welsh Green Party, it’s a sign that getting states to make good on their climate promises will be an uphill battle.

“I think it highlights a very serious problem,” he told The National.

“It's not just going to happen with devolution in Wales, you can see more and more when you get regions or cities taking action themselves because the UK Government isn't taking action, you're getting this strange ‘who's responsible, who isn't responsible’ row.

“From the outside, it feels like the Welsh Government really not wanting to own this decision.


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“It’s a refusal to actually accept the urgency of what all these figures mean, what all these pledges mean.”

Despite strong words from deputy climate change minister Lee Waters, who said that Wales has a "clear policy of stopping using fossil fuels", the Welsh Government maintains that, since the original 2016 extension license was granted before new devolution powers came into effect in 2018, it has no power to intervene.

"We don't want it to happen and the only reason it might happen is because of [Westminster] inaction and their policies," Waters said.

At the same time, the UK Coal Authority – the Westminster body charged with regulating the industry – says that because its essential criteria for granting new mining licenses was met by Energybuild, and in the absence of any intervention from the government in Wales, it had no choice but to approve the expansion.

The approval of a coal mine expansion in Aberpergwm has revealed the cracks in the UK and Welsh governments climate commitments. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)The situation at Aberpergwm has triggered a row between the Welsh and UK governments.

Climate group The Coal Action Network (CAN), however, says that they’re both wrong.

As planning permission for the mine extension wasn’t consolidated by Neath Port Talbot Council until 2018, they say, the Welsh Government could’ve stopped the project at that point – and still could today.

Meanwhile, CAN claims that the UK Coal Authority’s argument is a “clear misunderstanding” and a “narrow misreading” of its own legal powers.

The group has mounted a legal challenge against both governments over the issue.

In a letter last week, CAN said it would seek a judicial review over the lawfulness of mine expansion decision – unless the Coal Authority withdraws the license and the Welsh Government formally notifies Energybuild that the mining is not authorised.

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The group told The National it’s expecting formal responses from the two by Tuesday 22nd February – at which point it’ll decide whether to push forward with the legal case.

“So often with the Welsh Government, it has great ambition,  but it's not matched by implementation,” Mr Slaughter adds.

“It’s speculation on my part, but I think, for them, it feels like a very unpopular decision on the ground - the steelworks are so totemic.”

Indeed, many in the local community are very much in favour of the mine expansion, arguing that the area cannot take a further wave of job losses. Local shop owners say they are reliant on the custom of workers at the mine to keep business going, and the National Union of Mineworkers has called the idea of scrapping the mining license “ridiculous”.

“Especially in south Wales, there’s been so little new opportunity in those areas,” said Professor Calvin Jones, an environmental economics specialist at Cardiff University, who last year published research on former UK mining communities.

“Those places are in some cases still reliant on jobs from old industries – like mining – and it can be very difficult for people to imagine a future beyond the current kind of declining status quo.

“The same is true for Port Talbot, of course, with the steelworks.

“The experience of the period from 1980s onwards has meant that I guess, people don't believe that anything good can come - because they’ve seen very little good coming.

The approval of a coal mine expansion in Aberpergwm has revealed the cracks in the UK and Welsh governments climate commitments. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Thousands are currently employed by Tata Steel in and around Port Talbot. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

“So they cling onto things which have been established sources of employment in the past, and which preserve a kind of cultural iconic status, and a sense of identity to the community.”

Both Energybuild and the NUM have argued that, were they unable to extract the anthracite coal necessary to supply Tata Steel in Port Talbot, the company would instead ship it in from further afield – Russia, or Indonesia – which would drive up emissions, not cut them.

“I completely get this argument – that if we didn’t do it, someone further away would,” said Prof. Jones.

“That’s fine - except Europe is oversupplied with steel.”

US president Biden did indeed strike a deal allowing imports of European steel earlier this year, in an attempt to reduce an excess of steel produced in the region.

“If you set up this situation where we can't let Aberpergwm close because the majority of its product goes to Tata, then you put yourself on this path where, when Tata does close, you get an even bigger crash,” Jones added.

“It’s boiling a frog, the water getting hotter and hotter – eventually the Welsh economy will fall off an even bigger cliff, because you haven't been prepared to take those tough choices when the opportunity arose.”

The approval of a coal mine expansion in Aberpergwm has revealed the cracks in the UK and Welsh governments climate commitments. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)A wood in Aberpergwm, Neath Port Talbot. (Picture: Jonathan Billinger)

Anthony Slaughter agrees: “There has to be a period when you stop and make that transition.

“No one's advocating just shut down an industry and throw more people on the scrap heap as has happened in the past.

“But we can't keep our heads in the sand – the jobs argument will be used over and over, it’ll never be the right time to stop.

“We can't win a race to the bottom, we can't make the cheapest steel in the world, so we can't corner the market that way.

“It’s not going to be straightforward, but we don’t have the choice to carry on as we are.”

It’s a difficult issue, Prof Jones said, because no one industry or employer can step in and replace those old jobs.


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“A lot of the green discourse around this focuses on energy generation - wind turbines, marine renewables and so on,” he said.

“These things, firstly, provide very few jobs.

“Secondly, they provide jobs which tend to be peripatetic [requiring travel], and tend to be highly technical, for the most part, though not completely.

“Compared to coal, no other form of new energy – except, perhaps, biomass energy – could employ as many people.”

Jobs in health and social care, in some forms of agriculture, in housebuilding and in retrofitting existing homes to be carbon efficient, Prof. Jones said, could in future restore these communities – but it would take time and investment.

“There’s no silver bullet, or big factory, that can fix everything - it's about having a mix of employment, within a reasonable distance to where people live, that’s open to a mix of people of different skill levels and types,” he added.

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