Protesters locked themselves to a 500-tonne excavator and chained themselves together to blockade an open cast mine today on the family estate of Viscount Matt Ridley, a climate denier and prominent Tory peer.
More than a dozen climate change activists arrived before dawn at the Shotton coal mine, north of Newcastle upon Tyne, as part of what they called Operation Pixie, an audatious protest which was the product of weeks of clandestine planning.
Four activists clambered down a steep bank at the centre of the mine and climbed on top of the excavator, attaching themselves with bicycle D-Locks around their necks. Another team blocked the entrance to the Shotton mine by locking their wrists into concrete-laden drainage pipes.
Ellen Gibson (pictured, below), one of the activists, formed part of the roadblock preventing lorries leaving the site. She said: “We need to keep 80 percent of all known fossil fuels in the ground if we are to prevent catastrophic global warming - and coal is the dirtiest fuel of all.
“Gone are the days when mining benefited millions. Now opencast mining lines the pockets of millionaires like climate sceptic Lord Ridley, while destroying the English landscape and cooking the planet.”
She added: “Ridley needs to stop denying the science of climate change and the government needs to end coal mining and shut the country’s last few old, polluting coal power stations.”
Donning masks of Lord Ridley's face, the group calls itself 'Matt Ridley's Conscience'. The campaigners are demanding an end to all open cast mining in Britain and for coal fuelled power stations to be closed by 2023 to prevent catastrophic climate change.
The activists want to spark a wave of protests across Europe ahead of the international climate negotiations in Paris next month. Many of those at Shotton will be protesting again in France on December 12 as part of the Climate Games actions.
They are calling on international delegates to respect ‘red lines’ in the amount of fossil fuels burned and climate changing carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. The group of activists are also “standing with” the Alliance of Small Island States, representing people on the front line of rising sea levels.
Lord Ridley is best known as a popular science writer having authored the bestseller, the Rational Optimist. He is also a member of the influential Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords and regular columnist in The Times newspaper.
Ridley recently confirmed he is a coal producer, following years of semi-denials. An estimated 10 percent of native coal burned in Britain comes from his estate.
The aristocrat has previously claimed only to earn a small ‘wayleave’ from the two recently extended opencast mines on his sprawling country estate, which has been in his family since 1700.
The coal on his land is owned by the government. Miners Banks Group, a family run company based near Newcastle, enjoyed a turnover of £128 million in 2014, according to the latest accounts. The Shotton mine yielded more than 100 million tonnes of coal during the year.
The protest comes at a difficult time for the company. Coal prices on the world market have collapsed, and contracts signed three years ago are now coming to an end.
“During the year, forward prices for coal have declined significantly,” the directors note in the most recent accounts. “The directors expect profit levels to reduce in 2016 if prevailing market conditions continue.”
Banks Mining has tried to diversify into wind power but will have been hit by cuts to government subsidies for renewables - cuts strongly supported by Ridley.
“The potential for future onshore wind farm development many be adversely affected by the outcome of the next General Election,” the directors correctly anticipated.
“A Conservative administration may seek to remove subsidy entitlement for onshore wind farms consented after May 2015 which could cause such developments to be no longer financially viable.”
Rakesh Prashara, a student at Newcastle University and a fossil fuel divestment activist, said: “Lord Ridley should come clean about how much he rakes in from coal mining on his ancestral estate.
“A self-proclaimed fan of industrial progress, Ridley should be leading the world out of the fossil fuel age rather than sending coal to Newcastle.”
He also supports the community group Save Druridge Bay, which is opposed to a Banks Mining proposal for a new mine on the Northumberland coast.
He added: “Banks Mining’s proposal for yet another opencast coal mine next to Druridge Bay would wreck an astonishingly beautiful coastlines and damage tourism as well as the climate.”
Lord Ridley has previously told DeSmog UK: “I receive no financial benefit other than a wayleave in exchange for providing access to the land.
“The details are commercially confidential, but the wayleave is very small indeed in relation to the value of the coal mined from my family’s land.”
Lee Vanderwel (pictured, below), 60, was among the first Bank employees to discover the protesters in the mine. He said: “Everyone is entitled to an opinion but we are entitled to earn a living. If there was an alternative to burning coal I would be all for it. But I prefer a coal power station to nuclear.”
UPDATE - 12:45 PM
After six hours of successful protest and halting operations at the mine, Robert Downer, chief executive at Ridley's Blagdon Estate, commented: “I know that Matt Ridley has always been clear and open about his mining interests, as well as on his views on climate and energy policy, and that he has also been a champion of utilising shale gas - coal's main rival - as a suitable future source of energy production.
“I also have no doubt that he will continue to voice and defend his opinion on a wide range of issues, as he is perfectly entitled to do.”
Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: “Individuals' actions such as blocking roads across the site and attaching themselves to equipment pose considerable danger to the health and well-being of both our own staff and the people involved, and we're very grateful that no-one has been injured as a result of these foolhardy and illegal attempts to disrupt operations at a legitimate place of work.”
“Coal is and will remain a central part of the UK's energy mix for the foreseeable future,” he continued, later adding: “Surface mining also provides a unique opportunity to make improvements to land that might otherwise not be possible.
“Contaminated land can be cleared up, flooding can be alleviated and new landscape features and habitats can be created, and our sites are always restored with the principle that what we create should be an improvement on what was there before to ensure that we leave a positive legacy of which our host communities can be proud.”
Banks Mining is “currently working with the relevant authorities to remove them from the site.”
UPDATE - 3pm
The protesters have successfully closed operations for the day at Ridley's Shotton mine in Northumbria. Five activists have been arrested for closing access to the mine's entrance according to the group's twitter account.
As of 3:30pm a total of nine protesters have been arrested according to BBC reports.
A spokesman said: “Officers have been in attendance to engage with Shotton Mining staff, the local community and the protest group to minimise any disruption and try and keep those involved safe.
“Nine people have been arrested in connection with this incident.”
In a statement to DeSmog UK after the day's actions, the campaigners said: “The climate crisis calls for bold action. Using our bodies to blockade the mine’s entrance and climb aboard a giant excavator, we managed to keep fossil fuels in the ground at the coal mine for over 8 hours. We’re delighted that today’s action has attracted so much attention and support, and we look forward to Matt Ridley and the UK Government’s response.
“Coal is a clear red line for the climate and for communities: we need to keep 80% of all known fossil fuels in the ground if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate change. As the dirtiest fossil fuel, we will continue to act to end coal.”
UPDATE - 28 October
“Everyone is now safely back home, after being released from police custody yesterday [27 October] after 22 hours (the limit is 24 hours),” reports the group. “All nine activists have been charged with aggravated trespass and are due to appear at South East Northumberland Magistrates' Court on 26 November.”