RSPB Scotland has welcomed a new report by the Scottish Coal Task Force recommending changes to regulation of open cast coal extraction in Scotland, and is calling for robust regulation of the industry in the face of further decline of coal in the energy mix, and funding for clean-up at abandoned sites.
After the collapse of the open cast coal industry in 2013, which left a damaging legacy of unrestored sites across Scotland, a task force was set up to identify what went wrong.
The report contains a number of recommendations, including additional oversight by Scottish Government, new monitoring fees and standardised approaches to legal agreements to make sure restoration funding is secure. The report also notes the need to apply lessons to other sectors, to ensure similar risks are avoided in industries like landfill or energy developments.
Even though systems should have been in place to set aside funds for restoration, it was estimated in 2013 that there was a £200 million shortfall for clean-up of mines and filling in abandoned voids. Although limited funds have now been recovered from bonds it is still unclear how most restoration will be funded, including at sites within protected areas for wildlife.
The report comes shortly after the UK energy minister Amber Rudd announced a commitment to phase out coal power stations by 2025, given the massive carbon emissions caused by burning coal.
The Task Force report acknowledges that, while there could be further coal extraction in Scotland even in a declining coal-energy sector, it is uncertain whether coal prices will recover to make sites viable.
RSPB Scotland has raised concerns that the industry is proposing new tax breaks to help maintain extraction and fund restoration, highlighting risks of encouraging more extraction at sensitive sites where the industry has historically failed to meet its liabilities.
RSPB Policy Officer, Alexa Morrison said: “We welcome this report, and look forward to seeing progress with the actions that now must follow to ensure robust systems are in place, so that industries cannot walk away from their environmental liabilities when they get into financial trouble.
“However, given announcements this week that coal is to be phased out of the UK energy mix, it is important we also recognise the need for a sustainable transition away from coal extraction – supporting those employed in the sector and minimising damage to the environment and communities.
“It is critical that we find a workable funding solution for restoration at sites where communities and the environment are still bearing the brunt of failures. We are clear, however, that Government intervention should come in the form of targeted funding at sites where restoration is most needed, not in the form of new coal tax breaks which could exacerbate the problem.”