17 September 2013

S4M-07712 Opencast Mining

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07712, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on opencast mining in Scotland, coaling and restoring.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

As the member who, as minister, took the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 through the Parliament, I place that issue at the heart of my remarks.

I will start with carbon capture and storage. Helen Eadie and I are Europe enthusiasts, but CCS is one area in which Europe is not doing well. We do not have a single CCS facility in the whole of the EU. The number of CCS plants in China is now in double figures, and even the United States—which is not the most obvious climate change champion given its engagement on the issue—is making progress on it.

The need to tackle climate change was something that united us when we took the legislation through in 2009, and it continues to do so to this day. Although we share objectives, when it comes to means I differ substantially from the two minority groups in the Parliament that are behind the amendment that stands against the consensus that is represented by the majority.

It is worth responding to what Mike MacKenzie said. I remember that, when my brother and I were water bailiffs in 1968, we brought coal into our bothy by sea—we had half a ton of it to keep us warm over the summer. Remote and rural communities often depend on coal in an important way.

I want to talk about the positives that can be derived from opencast mining. On 1 November 2011, at the invitation of the River Nith salmon fishery board, I made a ministerial visit to see the positive impact that the opencast industry was having on the environment. I will contrast that with poor examples, as well. The industry there had redirected the Nith on several occasions but, in its restoration, had improved the water flow. It had improved the embankments on the river by moving fences out to keep beasts from polluting the river and had put in trees to improve the riverside environment. In addition, it worked with the salmon fishing industry to suspend blasting operations at times when the salmon were spawning. The result of that was a fourfold increase in the number of salmon that reached the upper reaches of the Nith. The collaboration between the opencast mining industry there and the champions of environmental excellence representing the salmon fisheries in the area was highly successful. Would that that were the universal experience. Clearly, it is not.

We know of the difficulties that were caused by the proposals to increase track access charges, which would have put £4 on each tonne that was carried. Fortunately, those proposals were mitigated. I am not sure that that was a great advert—as Claudia Beamish would have us believe—for cross-border collaboration. It was an issue that was of vital economic concern to us but of comparatively little concern to the larger UK. Fortunately, the arguments against those proposals swayed the day. Today’s debate is another example of rational argument prevailing.

It is worth looking at what opportunities exist for the industry in future. It is, of course, important that we get to an energy mix that is fully sustainable, but we will get there in stages. We must continue to exploit non-renewable resources. We must use fungible resources as an intermediate technology en route to a fully sustainable energy mix. Such resources are part of the economic mix.

If we destroy the economy, we destroy the economics that will be necessary to take us to a fully renewable future in which we have dramatically reduced our climate change footprint, in line with the legislation that we have passed. So, the economy and doing the right thing for the environment are inextricably linked and cannot be separated, unless we decide to close down the whole of the human race and all our activities. Well, fair enough: a sterile world without us on it would indeed be relatively free of climate change impact. However, what would that be worth to us or, indeed, to the world and all that lives in it?

As I have described, restoration by the coal industry is, at its best, very good indeed; but at its worst, it is unacceptably bad. It is right that the Parliament focuses on the bad, because that is where we wish to effect change. We must ensure that the industry has the opportunity to generate the funds that will enable it to do restitution. Like others, I drive from time to time up the M90, and we can see the impact of today’s opencast mining and recognise that it will be substantially expensive to make good what has been done, although we cannot quantify it.

It is perhaps worth extending the hand of friendship to political colleagues across the chamber, so I congratulate Claire Baker and her colleagues on working effectively with the minister and putting aside some of the tribalism that sometimes contaminates debate in here—through gritted teeth, I say that I even extend that to Murdo Fraser on the Conservative benches.

The Scottish Parliament has not always been kind to the miners. In 1701, we passed the Habeas Corpus Act of Scotland, the purpose of which is relatively self-evident, which specifically said that

“this present Act is in no way to be extended to colliers”.

In other words, they excluded colliers from freedom, and they remained in enslavement to the owners until an act of 1799. Today, we have an opportunity to unite in a positive way that does some good for the coal industry while simultaneously propelling us closer to meeting the climate change objectives that we all agreed on in June 2009.


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