By Paul Burnell
BBC File On 4
Opencast mining has environmental consequences
Twenty years ago, coal was a fuel that seemed to have had its day.
But coal power is back in favour, thanks to sky-high oil and gas prices and the need for energy security.
Yet the move to coal poses challenges for a government that is also keen to stress its green credentials.
In a once beautiful stretch of Northumberland, huge excavators rip coal from the landscape at the Dehli opencast mine, where it is expected that 1.8m tons of coal will be mined over its lifetime.
At nearby Shotton, there is a similar prospect as another mine is due to open.
"Until recently, this was a huge expanse of green fields and trees and now it has been decimated by what will be one of the largest opencast sites in Northumberland," said local councillor Wayne Daley.
"It's an appalling rape of the countryside."
The county council rejected the Shotton plan but was over-ruled by a planning inquiry and central government.
Campaigners say the Welsh Assembly is being pressurised
Gordon Halliday, head of planning at Northumberland County Council was surprised by this decision and others elsewhere in Englang.
"We do have concerns that this is the third site in 18 months that has been overturned on appeal by the Secretary of State," Mr Halliday told File On 4.
In Wales, campaigners claim Whitehall pressurised the Welsh Assembly into approving an opencast mine at Merthyr Tydfil.
Alyson Austin, who lives a few hundred metres from the mine, was furious at the decision which she said had a sever impact on the estate.
With a son suffering from asthma, she is worried about the dust from the site and alos objects to the sound of diggers.
"The noise from these machines is absolutely horrendous. She said she would like to move but cannot find a buyer, adding, "who wants to live next to an opencast mine?"
Case for coal
Energy minister Malcolm Wicks, believes the assembly and local authorities have to reconcile local environmental concerns with the nation's need for energy at a time when coal produces a third of UK electricity.
FIND OUT MORE
Listen to File On 4, Radio 4 Tuesday 10 June 2008 2000 BST, repeated Sunday 15 June 1700 BST
"It is not a bad thing if a reasonable proportion of that coal is mined here in Britain."
He added: "Opencast mining is controversial environmentally but it is a significant source of coal in Britain, alongside the few remaining deep mines that we have."
The other environmental snag with coal is the effect burning coal is believed to have in causing climate change.
It causes emissions of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
However the government looks to set to approve a new generation of coal-fired power stations - the first since the 1970s.
The first application is at Kingsnorth in Kent and Keith Allott, of conservation group WWF-UK, said it would be disastrous.
"If the government gives Kingsnorth, the green light, I think we can see as many as six other power stations following behind," he said, adding it would stop the UK meeting its targets to cut CO2 emissions.
"If these stations come through we are looking at an increase of increased emissions at perhaps 50m tonnes per year."
The government is pinning its hopes on a technical fix called carbon capture and storage, which sees the carbon emissions, from the new generation of coal-fired power stations, piped to old gas and oil fields in the North Sea.
But there is a problem as Matthew Lockwood, of think-tank The Institute for Public Policy Research explained: "The technology's not there yet."
Power company RWE Npower hopes to build its own small carbon capture unit, if it gets the go-ahead to build a new coal-fired station at Tilbury on the Thames Estuary.
But a senior executive with the company admitted it is expensive and could take 20 years to develop.
"It could easily double the cost of electricity compared with non-carbon abated plant," said Chris Elston, director of Projects, RWE Npower.
However, Mr Wicks, insisted that the government aimed to invest heavily in CCS despite the drawbacks in the process and green concerns.
"Whatever some environmentalists might wish - they might wish the future of energy could be about energy efficiency and renewables - the world will be relying for its energy on fossil fuels for a century or more to come," he said.
"To think because coal is dirty we can realistically rid the world of coal is total nonsense."