By Will Smale
BBC News Online Business Reporter
Coal was the black gold that fuelled the British empire.
Mining has become a relic of the past in the UK
A century before the miners' strike, the pits of South Wales, Yorkshire and the other coal-producing regions were effectively the nation's engine rooms.
Hundreds of thousands of men risked life and limb to sweat and toil in choking darkness to drive the UK forward, and power British steamships to its colonies around the world.
By 1913, a year before the First World War, the UK produced 284 million tonnes of coal, its highest ever level, and more than a million people worked in the pits.
After that, production steadily declined, as new sources of power generation developed and superseded coal, amid a backdrop of ever-continuing consolidation - and confrontation - in the UK coal mining industry.
From the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s, to post-1945 nationalisation, and finally the all but terminal 1984 miners' strike and its aftermath, the decline and fall of the UK coal industry was long-drawn and tortuous.
But decline it definitely was.
There are now just more than a dozen deep mines left in the UK, producing some 17.3 million tonnes a year, and employing about 6,400 men.
At one time there were more than 200 deep mines in South Wales alone.
So with the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike once more returning coal to the spotlight, are we right to see the black stuff as being essentially a relic of the past? A fuel of a bygone age?
Absolutely not, says economist Brian Morgan, senior lecturer at Cardiff University's Business School.
As he strenuously points out, the world has never before been producing as much coal.
It is just that the UK made a conscious decision, whether economically or politically, to opt out of the game in the 1980s and 90s - something Mr Morgan says was very foolish short term-ism on a number of counts.
Tower Colliery is the last remaining deep mine in South Wales
"Billions and billions of tonnes of coal are today being mined around the world - from China to India and the US - more than ever before," said Mr Morgan.
"It is completely wrong to say that coal is in decline or is a fuel of the past, as in reality it has never been more in demand."
Mr Morgan added: "The only thing is that the UK effectively no longer plays a part, thanks to the mine closures initiated by the Conservative Governments in the 1980s and 1990s."
Most of today's global coal supply is used for energy production, something the UK quietly still relies upon for 33% of its electricity generation needs - second only to gas.
Only that the UK now imports more and more coal - 35.5 million tonnes in 2001, from countries including Colombia and Poland.
UK MINING INDUSTRY
Employs 9,000 in total
6,400 in deep mines
The rest in opencast
17.3 million tonnes from deep-mines in 2001
35.5 million tonnes imported in 2001
Mr Morgan insists it was madness on all levels - political, economic, environmental and social - for consecutive UK governments to stand over the decline of the country's coal mining.
"Environmentally the UK is today anti-coal because of the perceived pollution and its pledges to better the Kyoto global warming control targets," he said.
"Yet in reality this is entirely counterproductive and misguided."
It is an argument Friends of the Earth says it can agree with - to a certain extent.
Its spokeswoman said: "Certainly it is better [less polluting] that coal is burnt in the UK than China.
"Coal is a complicated issue though," she added.
"We can only support coal (for electricity generation) if it can become as clean as gas.
"And then only as a temporary precursor during the development of renewables.
COAL PRODUCTION - 2002
1. China - 1393.4 million tonnes
2. USA - 992.3 million tonnes
3. India - 358.9
4. Australia - 337.9
5. Russia - 253.4
6. Germany - 207.9
12 UK - 30
Source: Cardiff Business School
"At present we cannot support the existing coal-fired power stations in the UK because they are so polluting, and we are obviously totally against opencast mining," said the spokeswoman.
Mr Morgan is calling for the UK Government to offer as much support as possible to the country's remaining deep mines, many of which face an uncertain future.
"You will never be able to reopen the mines that were closed, it is just not economically possible, the cost would be astronomical.
"This is very sad, but the government must ensure we make the most of what we have got, both for reasons of environmentalism and healthy diversity of energy supply."