The government has been treading carefully in the 15 months it has been reviewing energy policy, sensitive to the charge that outright intervention to save collieries would be attacked as 'old style Labour policy'. Its decision is to block new gas-fired power stations and to alter the complicated way deals are done between the companies that generate electricity and those who sell it to the public.
Ministers believe this will remove an unfair bias in the market against coal.
There are currently 21 deep-mine pits in Britain employing about 15,000 workers. Eight of these are believed to be under current threat of closure. It is thought at least four of these can now be reprieved.
Sid Walker, Union of Democratic Mineworkers representative at Clipstone Colliery, Nottinghamshire, said the government's decision was good news for mining communities, which had seen the closure of 200 collieries in 20 years. There should be a continuing future for coal because, he said: 'We're sat on top of hundreds of millions of tonnes'.
Energy expert Professor Ian Fells, of Newcastle University, said the decision was a sensible decision and 'the government is edging its way to some sort of energy policy'. He said that in 10 years coal-fired and nuclear power stations would have been replaced by gas technology. As it is, Britain would be importing natural gas by pipeline from Iran and Russia by 2008.