Large group of people in hall cheering at outcome of Nant Llesg coalmine planning decision

How we won a fossil-free future for Wales

When plans for a coal mine at Nant Llesg in Wales were rejected in September 2018, the writing was on the wall for coal. And now the Welsh government has taken a big step further.
By Celeste Hicks    |      13 Dec 2018    |      7 min

Wales is now on a path to a clean energy future.

The Welsh government has made a historic announcement that fossil fuel extraction projects are incompatible with climate change targets.

That means it will allow no new coal mines. And there won't be petroleum extraction or fracking.

The new rules are included in Planning Policy Wales which was published in December 2018. At the same time, the Senedd in Cardiff passed clear regulations for cutting the country's carbon emissions.

Rainbow over green flatlands with large text saying We Did It - Wales goes fossil free
Rainbow over green flatlands with large text saying We Did It - Wales goes fossil free
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Wales without coal

The decision to commit to a future of clean energy comes just months after the Planning Inspectorate finally threw out a proposal for a huge opencast coal mine in the Rhymney Valley.

Miller Argent applied to build the mine at Nant Llesg near Merthyr Tydfil in 2013. The company wanted to extract 6 million tonnes of coal over 14 years.

But the mine met fierce local opposition. Friends of the Earth Cymru played a vital role in supporting the community campaign which sprung up to challenge the plans.

Merthyr Tydfil was once a centre of coal mining in Wales, so how did we win the battle against the mine?

Quarry lorries move materials around the Ffos-Y-Fran opencast coal mine on November 17, 2009 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.
The blot of opencast coal mining on the Welsh countryside

When the plans were first announced by Miller Argent, the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) was horrified at the prospect of another opencast site in their area.

A number of its members live under the shadow of the giant Ffos-y-Fran mine which opened in 2006.

"For years we've had dust and pollution blowing over our house," says Alyson Austin from Friends of the Earth local group in Merthyr Tydfil. She is also a member of UVAG. "We have to clean our windows all the time. We've seen traffic increasing on local roads. The restoration of the site has not been done well."

UVAG were also distressed that the Nant Llesg mine looked set to destroy a nearby wetland site which teems with wildlife. If the plans had gone ahead, tonnes of waste rock and soil would have been dumped on peatland close to a local pond, Rhas Las.

Jim Davies from United Valleys Action Group with binoculars by side of country road
Jim Davies from United Valleys Action Group with binoculars by side of country road
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

"I know it doesn't look much more than brown grass," says Jim Davies, a former biology teacher and local resident, as he shows me round Rhas Las on an icy November day.

"But there are so many migrating and wader birds which use this pond. We've had rare visitors such as the long-billed dowager. We've also got well-loved breeding pairs of curlews, snipe, bar-tailed godwits, ringed plovers and lapwing."

13 species of sedges and 14 species of dragonflies and damsel flies have been found at Rhas Las.

Rhas Las pond near Nant Llesg site. Lake to left, grassland to right.
Rhas Las pond near Nant Llesg site. Lake to left, grassland to right.
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Long term campaigning

UVAG's 5 year campaign against the mine at Nant Llesg was creative and brought in a wide range of local residents.

The group organised a Death of the Valley protest where they carried a mock coffin in a funeral procession outside the council offices in Caerphilly. They wanted to show how the valley would be damaged if the mine went ahead. The following year they staged the follow up, Trial of the Valleys. At this event the group dressed up as judges, lawyers and the grim reaper and put Miller Argent in the dock.

These protests drew media and wider public attention and showed the council that there was strong, organised and determined local oppositionHaf Elgar, Director Friends of the Earth Cymru

There was still local tension, as some in the community believed the mine could offer jobs in a region where unemployment runs at 25%. Nevertheless the campaign succeeded. UVAG convinced Caerphilly County Council to almost unanimously reject the proposal.

There were jubilant scenes in the public gallery and among the waiting crowds outside when the news was announced in 2015.

Although Miller Argent appealed, the process ended in September 2018 when the Planning Inspectorate said the company had not responded to its requests in time.

Large group of people in hall cheering at outcome of Nant Llesg coalmine planning decision
Large group of people in hall cheering at outcome of Nant Llesg coalmine planning decision
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Fossil fuels and the Well-Being of Future Generations Act

The story of Nant Llesg shows how Wales is now leading the way on tackling the climate emergency.

And it's in part thanks to Friends of the Earth Cymru that the landscape has changed so much.

In making the decision to phase out fossil fuels, the government was influenced by the new Well-Being of Future Generations Act. This legislation requires all public bodies to consider the impact of their decisions on the future prosperity of people, environment, culture and communities.

Friends of the Earth Cymru was instrumental in drawing up this new law which came into force in 2016.

"This is a clear example of our ground-breaking law in action," says Haf Elgar. "Wales has committed in law to a sustainable future for us all, and it flows that from that fossil fuels have no place here."

The fight goes on

Back in Chris and Alyson's living room over tea and biscuits, UVAG are plotting their next steps. The group still has around dedicated 10 members who continue to meet, even though their main campaign has been won.

"We've achieved so much together it would be a shame to stop," says Alyson Austin. "We'd like our next campaign to be getting the recognition Rhas Las pond deserves. It's such a great habitat for migrating and wetland birds."

8 lapwings flying over a lake with tall grass at the edge
8 lapwings flying over a lake with tall grass at the edge

Friends of the Earth Cymru campaigns on a number of key issues, including its innovative Bee Friendly scheme and challenging the plans to build an extension to the M4 motorway through the important wetland habitat of the Gwent Levels.

Thanks to the players of People's Postcode Lottery

It's in part thanks to the sustained support of the players of People's Postcode Lottery that we have been able to keep this campaign going over a number of years. Thank you!

6 members of United Valleys Action Group face camera and celebrate victory against Nant Llesg plans
6 members of United Valleys Action Group face camera and celebrate victory against Nant Llesg plans
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Fossil-free future

Wales' momentous decision to phase out fossil fuels shows that if we act together, we can see the back of coal. We can persuade our politicians to commit to a future without fossil fuels.

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