I will not be the most popular man in town if I remind you, as you feed the gas meter yet again or read your electricity bill, that — ‘We told you so!’ But we did, ‘we’ being the team which was pushing for planning permission to develop the proposed coal mine and power station in north Antrim.
For some years I advised the Australian outfit on its public affairs: Irish-Australian actually, if you bear in mind that its principal, at that time, was a native of Donegal.
But a vociferous element among the locals in north Antrim had other ideas. That element did not want the mine and was determined — and presumably remains determined — not to have it. The people concerned used perfectly constitutional means to defeat the proposed project, as they were entitled to do. Most of the rest, skimming the headlines and unwilling to take the time to explore the detail, took little notice. Now they — you, all of us — are about to pay the price.
The price of electricity in these parts is shortly to increase by another cool 30%, perhaps more. The new charges are to be introduced from the beginning of next month. The details are being given this week. So are the details of a matching rise in the price of gas. Barely three months ago gas went up in price by no less than 28%. Heating oil is already 80% dearer than it was a year ago. I need say no more.
When the AuIron Energy project was proposed, its backers used two arguments in its favour. The first was that Northern Ireland had made a monumental strategic error in the 1960s by resolving to base its electricity generation overwhelmingly on imported oil. It should not make the same mistake again, a generation later, by resolving to depend upon imported gas.
The second argument in favour of the mine was price. North Sea gas was a dwindling resource even in the 1990s. Siberian gas imports were already being negotiated for the UK. But this was international trading on the world market, all prices in US dollars. Wild fluctuation was to be expected. A bomb would go off or a dictator would be assassinated or a desert pipeline would be blown; or a diplomatic stand-off would threaten a world crisis, as over Georgia — and up would shoot the oil price, followed by gas; and so it has been.
But north Antrim coal is a local resource, would be priced in sterling, immune to the switchback of foreign exchange, and secure on the spot as a dependable supply in any world crisis. What is the present circumstance? We already depend upon gas — mostly Russian gas — for more than two-thirds of our supplies. South of the border the figure is 90% — though the Republic does have gas fields of its own. (But they will not last for ever and Kinsale is already well past its peak.)
Walter McClay, formerly an executive of Northern Ireland Electricity and subsequently AuIron Energy's project director, pointed out in a letter to this newspaper last week that, should the Russians decide to cut off gas supplies to western Europe, we would face catastrophe because the electricity industry would have to shut down.
But the alternative is present and waiting. There is enough coal in north Antrim to fuel a 600 megawatt power station for 30 years, probably a great deal more. Note well that the cost of the electricity thus generated would be about one-fifth to one-quarter of that being produced now. The site is bought. The fuel is at hand. No grants would be sought from the EU. The major overhead would be the wages bill. But there would be an outside investment in the region of £700m by AuIron and the partner it would engage when the go-ahead was obtained. I no longer have any connection with AuIron Energy.
But I remain appalled at the closed minds which have rubbished their project. Coal-burning technology has moved forward a great deal in the last two decades. The effluent from the plant can be washed clean. The French are working on a project to bury it. The same is true of open-cast mining. Where the deposit is rich, thick and easily accessible (as in north Antrim), only a small portion of ground need be opened at any one time, to be restored — at once — when extraction moves on.
Opponents of the project made much of their visit to the shallow, thin seams in the old-fashioned lignite opencast mines in the Ruhr: but these bear no relation whatsoever to what is planned for north Antrim. I would suggest the opposition show enough confidence in their case to face giving the issue a fair hearing. It did not have it last time. As for the environment, I would ask: how many of them run cars with diesel engines? The lethal particles of stinking, half-burned fuel those vehicles emit are doing far more harm to the lungs and arteries of the citizens of Northern Ireland, in causing cardiac disease and cancers, than any remote, clean-coal power station would.
In the meantime, the rest of us, as we turn down the heat this winter and contemplate our swelling bills, may reflect upon whether they represent a price worth paying.