Scotland’s largest private landowner, Richard the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, has become embroiled in a fierce battle with an Australian company over who should profit from exploiting potentially huge underground coal reserves.
An eleventh-hour intervention by the Duke’s staff forced Dumfries and Galloway Council to withdraw a bid by Melbourne-based New Age Exploration (NAE) to do exploratory drilling for coal at Canonbie, near the English border. Buccleuch Estate has its own, conflicting plans for extracting gas from the same coalbed.
The estate has been accused by a local councillor of “bullying” NAE to protect its commercial interests. But the estate insists the allegation is unfounded, and that it was just exercising its legitimate rights.
The Canonbie coal wars are erupting as the coal industry elsewhere in Scotland is collapsing. Two companies have gone bust, leaving as many as 15 opencast mines across the country without enough money to clean them up.
Environmental groups, local communities and leading politicians have called for a ban on new coal developments until the crisis is resolved. “Dumfries and Galloway seems to be in a world of its own where companies are competing to rip yet more fossil fuels out of the ground,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
He doubted whether the rival coal schemes would be economic, and warned that if they went ahead the south of Scotland could become “the dirty fuel capital of Europe”. More coal development was the last thing the climate needed, he argued.
“Climate change is the challenge of our age, with floods, droughts and storms threatening chaos around the globe. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and Scotland should be leading the way in leaving it in the ground.”
Buccleuch has been working with another Australian company, Dart Energy, on plans to extract coalbed methane from under the ground around Canonbie. But NAE has also announced ambitious plans to dig a new deep mine for coal covering part of the same area.
NAE has been asking for permission to drill some test bores on Buccleuch land since last August, but has been refused. So it sought a lease from Dumfries and Galloway Council to use an old primary school at Glenzier for drilling, immediately adjacent to the Buccleuch Estate.
The lease application was due to be considered by the council’s policy and resources committee on 20 June, but was withdrawn by council officials at the last minute without explanation. The Sunday Herald has since discovered that this was because Buccleuch intervened and threatened legal action.
Archie Dryburgh, the Labour councillor for Annandale East and Eskdale, said that he and other councillors had been told by a Buccleuch manager that the estate was concerned about environmental pollution from the proposed test drilling. The estate wanted to inform the council that, if pollution occurred, legal remedies would be pursued.
“It was a bit of a rammy,” Dryburgh said, accusing Buccleuch of “bullying” behaviour. “NAE has been treated pretty badly,” he added. “There’s not been a level playing field.”
NAE confirmed that Buccleuch had raised an objection to its drilling, but insisted there was no reason why it shouldn’t go ahead. “NAE has not withdrawn its application,” said a company spokeswoman.
“Dumfries and Galloway Council has informed NAE that they have delayed their decision for one month while they seek legal advice.” The company has been test drilling elsewhere since January with the co-operation of other landowners.
NAE’s proposed Lochinvar deep coal mine covers 67 square kilometres and stretches into northern England. It’s aimed at providing up to 410 million tonnes of coking coal for steel works south of the border.
As well as seeking to develop coalbed methane with Dart Energy, Buccleuch is also working with an English company, Kier, on proposals for an opencast coal mine near Canonbie. But it is the methane scheme that conflicts with NAE’s plans.
Buccleuch has argued that it makes sense to extract methane from the coal seam before digging it out via a new deep mine. And it defended its intervention against NAE.
“Buccleuch made representation to Dumfries and Galloway Council, as it is entitled to do at the pre-application stage under statutory provisions, in response to the planning application as we have concerns about the proposal,” said a spokesman for the estate. “Our views were conveyed in an entirely appropriate manner.”
Dumfries and Galloway Council confirmed it was taking legal advice, and expected NAE’s application to be considered later. “Various proposals for mining will undoubtedly come before the council for decision,” said a council spokesman.
Last week a new alliance of opencast coal communities called for a moratorium on new coal development “until such time as the current issues around restoration have been fully addressed”. They also demanded a public inquiry.
“It's now clear that no-one can make money out of opencast coal unless they rid themselves of all responsibility for cleaning up the mess they leave behind,” said Malcolm Spaven, chair of the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance.
He warned that the bill for restoring opencast sites could amount to more than £100 million. “Local authorities are cash-strapped and powerless while coal bosses walk away with millions,” he said.
“It's time to call a moratorium on any further opencast applications in Scotland until there is a robust system in place that guarantees restoration. And if the coal companies won't pay, the landowners should be held responsible.”