UK coal miners on uncertain ground

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Media caption"It's what you're used to," says miner Shaun Carter on working underground

The owners of Hatfield Colliery in Yorkshire are meeting energy firms and politicians - including Labour leader Ed Miliband - to discuss the future of the mine. But what do the men toiling deep underground think of their job prospects?

For the miners of Hatfield Colliery, the first challenge of every shift is simply getting to work.

It is a daily commute like few others. First stop is the lamp room, where torches and safety gear are issued.

Then, whatever the South Yorkshire weather is doing outside, they're in their shorts and vests and hard hats, packing into "the cage" - a rudimentary elevator which drops rapidly to 600m below the surface.

Already we're in a different landscape - electric lighting illuminating the rough walls of a tunnel excavated decades ago. And tracks which will take them 20 minutes into the darkness by a small, slow train the men call "the paddy".

At the end of the line, the walk begins. Three miles downhill into the darkness, the uneven ground lit only by the lamps on our helmets.

And so, finally, to the dust, the heat and the noise of the coal face.

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Here, the huge grinding wheel works back and forth across the exposed, glistening coal seam. Amid the din, a seemingly endless stream of the black stuff crumbles away to be carried off by conveyor belt.

Many of the mine's 438 workers are Yorkshiremen - following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.

They all know they are the last men standing in an industry which once employed tens of thousands. They all know their own pit faces a bleak future unless it can win fresh contracts to supply Britain's energy companies.

New economics

Underground, Shaun Carter and his son James are working side-by-side. Both tell me they are worried about the future.

"I'd like it to survive to have as good a living as everyone else and a job for my kids and for a future, and to have as many years as my dad in the colliers here," says James.

His father adds: "We have managed to keep on working through these times. It's been hard but I am still in work at the moment, and I hope to be in work for another 10 years."

The threatened end of Britain's deep pit industry comes as record amounts of coal are being imported. Mountains of it are being brought in from Russia, Colombia, the USA and beyond.

The new economics of global trade mean the imported stuff (often open cast mined before being carried across the oceans) is cheaper than the coal beneath our feet.

Viewed from the Yorkshire coal face - it's all deeply depressing.

Brian Holland, Hatfield Colliery's manager, said UK politicians must pay more attention to the coal reserves found within this country's shores.

"We have got 50 million tonnes of reserves beneath us, so you know, the government needs to take interest, and we need to extract those 50 million tonnes - 1.2 million tonnes a year - you're talking about 40 - 50 years of coal mining."

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said the UK was working to transform its energy sector, so as to reduce carbon emissions.

"In order to meet our climate change targets we need to change the way we use coal," said the spokesman.

"That's why the UK is at the forefront of developing carbon capture and storage technology - which could be a game-changer in our efforts to tackle climate change while also providing a huge economic advantage to the whole country."

At the end of the shift the miners leave, like the coal, on the conveyor belt. They lie face down as the belt clunks back to the surface.

They emerge to an uncertain future, hoping that their jobs can be saved but knowing that history and global economics are not on their side.

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