Viscount Matt Ridley: The New King Coal








I have written many times (eg here, here and here) about Viscount Matt Ridley. Ridley styles himself as “The Rational Optimist”, is brother in law of former Secretary of State against the Environment Owen Paterson, and was chair of the Northern Rock bank, when it collapsed in 2007 and was bought by the taxpayer for £3Bn. In addition to that cost, the UK taxpayer, through UK Asset Resolution, still owns many billions of pounds of Northern Rock mortgages, which may still have to be written off. Remember that when you hear this Government complain that it was the last lot who “got us into the financial crisis”.

I knew Ridley was a major landowner in Northumberland and derived an income from coal mining. But I only now realise just how major and just how large an income. Ridley owns the Blagdon Estate in Northumberland, just north of Newcastle. It’s clearly a very large estate, though Ridley is coy about exactly how many thousands of acres he owns.

Blagdon Farming Limited received in Single Farm Payment £196k in 2013, which would equate to around 1000ha of eligible farmland. In addition they also received £41000 from Rural Development grants.

This very friendly piece in his local paper tells us that the Blagdon estate covers over 12 square miles. This means Ridley owns over 3100ha or nearly 7500 acres. As you can see from the Blagdon website, Ridley has also diversified his estate so he also receives income from businesses using buildings on the estate, as well as his many tenants.

While the income from CAP payments and tenants may appear to be quite a lot, it is a mere drop in the ocean compared to his main income stream, coal.

Ridley owns a number of active coal mines, most notably Shotton opencast mine and Brenkley lane. Shotton currently covers 342ha with 6 million tonnes of coal. It is still expanding: the latest extensions will yield another 550000 tonnes of coal. Brenkley lane is 244ha with 2.9 million tonnes of coal to be extracted. Other Blagdon mines, such as the Delhi mine, have already been worked out.

So, altogether Ridley is removing nearly 10 million tonnes of coal from his estate over the next 5 years. That equates to emissions of around 28.6 million tonnes of CO2, with around 900g of CO2 produced for every kilowatt hour of energy produced. I don’t know how much profit Ridley is making from his coal but it must be massive. To put this in perspective the UK produces about 3 million tonnes of coal per quarter, which equates to 60 million tonnes over a 5 year period. So Ridley’s mines are 1/6 of the entire UK coal production.

The Government estimated that the UK as a whole emitted 570 million tonnes of CO2 (including equivalents from other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide) in 2013. So Ridley’s open cast mines once they are worked, will contribute the equivalent of 5% of the UK’s entire greenhouse gas emissions last year. As they are being worked over a five year period, we can roughly estimate that Ridley is responsible for 1% of the UK’s climate impact per annum.

Now of course Ridley is not himself using all the electricity produced from his coal – it is being used to provide energy for domestic business and industrial uses, including providing energy to our homes, so in that respect we must all take a burden of the responsibility for the CO2 his land is emitting.

And he might argue that if his land did not produce the coal, it would be imported from elsewhere in the world, or it might be replaced by coal with a lower energy density. Ridley also argues that as an advocate for gas, he is arguing against his own income stream. This is what he says on his website

I have a financial interest in coal mining on my family’s land. The details are commercially confidential, but I have always been careful to disclose that I have this interest in my writing when it is relevant; I am proud that the coal mining on my land contributes to the local and national economy; and that my income from coal is not subsidized and not a drain on the economy through raising energy prices. I deliberately do not argue directly for the interests of the modern coal industry and I consistently champion the development of gas reserves, which is a far bigger threat to the coal-mining industry than renewable energy can ever be. So I consistently argue against my own financial interest.

This is typical Ridley stuff and contains from dubious claims.

The UK Fossil fuel industry, according to the radical anticapitalists at the OECD, received £4.3Bn subsidy in 2011, including £85M for coal. As Ridley mines 1/6 of the UK’s coal, it is reasonable to assume that he received a sixth or £14M of coal subsidy from the UK taxpayer. In practice it may be smaller than this, as it will be shared out along the entire production chain from mine-owner to electricity producer, but it will still be a tidy sum – considering he is producing the most polluting fuel of them all and we are committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.

As for his championing the development of gas reserves, he conveniently forgets to mention that one of the biggest gas reserves is sitting in unworked coal seams – and projects are already underway to extract gas from coal without removing it from the ground.

And while he claims not to argue directly for the interests of the modern coal industry he then says

“It’s the fashion these days to vilify coal as the root of all environmental evil, but I think that’s mistaken. Coal and the technologies it spawned made it possible to double human lifespan, end famine, provide electric light and spare forests for nature. Because we get coal out of the ground, we do not have to cut down forests; because we use petroleum we don’t have to kill whales for their oil; because we use gas to make fertilizer we don’t have to cultivate so much land to feed the world. This country can compete with China on the basis of either cheap labour or cheap energy. I know which I’d prefer.”

If that isn’t an argument in favour of the modern coal industry I’d like to know what it is.

It is not really that surprising that Ridley leads the way in climate denial in the UK: as a scientist (not a climate scientist but a biologist) he lends credibility to the likes of Lord Lawson (who was disastrous as a Chancellor), or the claque of climate denying journalists that include the likes of James Delingpole, Christopher Booker and Charles Moore.  It is also worth noting that Ridley is profitting from the demise of the deep mine coal industry – an industry that was destroyed following a plan, The Ridley Plan, devised by his uncle – the Environment Secretary Nick Ridley.

As the modern day King Coal, one might suggest Matt Ridley has an extremely large vested interest in stoking climate denial.


Thanks to DesmogUK for starting me on this particular trail

Photo by George Hurrell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in climate change, Denialists, Matt Ridley, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Viscount Matt Ridley: The New King Coal

  1. And is he a merry old soul too? Increasing human lifespans and decreasing biodiversity.

  2. Nice bit of research into the Viscount, Miles. I must confess that what bothers me most is not his responsibility for climate change (which curiously he does actually claim on his blog that he admits IS happening) so much as the sheer moral and ethical wrongness of the fact that he and his family are allowed – by us fools – to own and dominate such a vast amount of land – far more than they could ever use properly for feeding themselves. And added to this that this one family of a few individuals control, in addition, one sixth of the entire coal resource in the whole of the UK???!!! Not to mention all the plum jobs, other investments and disproportionate behind the scenes influence they doubtless wield. We might as well be living in the Feudal era!

    Keep adding to your journalist files. It would be great to see what Private Eye must have amassed after all these years. Do they ever show people round I wonder?

    Presumably you also know that Matt and Rose’s mother was a Scarborough?

    Fascinating website. You can follow the links for amusement and eventually end up discovering that the entire aristocracy is one big Family. Isn’t that cosy.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much. Yes I have spent many an entertaining hour following the threads around conqueror101 is another one worth looking at.

      I liked this throw away line on the wikipedia entry for the Earl of Scarborough, Ridley’s grandfather:

      “Lumley was a freemason and, from 1951 to 1967 served as the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.”

      • I don’t know if this is a good place to bring in a biotechnology / GM linkage in this family tale?

        It appears that Matt and Rose have a Scarborough aunt, Lady Serena Lumley, who married an American from Virginia (known as ‘The Old Dominion’ by those nostalgic for the Imperial past) one Hugh Wiley. In common with most wealthy Virginians, our Anglo-Norman aristocracy, Owen Paterson and others of his niece’s family, Mr Hugh Wiley has a close interest in bloodstock and horsiculture generally. He’s even been an Olympic champion like Princess Anne.

        Matt and Rose’s cousin, Peter Wiley is, it seems, like his father, a purveyor of top of the range ‘luxury’ real estate, but he also tells us on his realty webpage that he has been a congressional staffer for a member of Congress and “a lobbyist for the Venture Capital and Biotechnology Industries in Boston, Massachusetts and Washington DC …” At Massachusetts Biotechnology Council apparently.

        Boston, Mass. is, of course, the very epicentre of US Biotech and a major global player.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks – yes it is a good place to bring up all things Ridley-related.

        It’s also worth noting that Ridley is proud to state on his website that he gives half the royalties from his latest book to 2 charities “that are helping those in need, especially in Africa, to trade, farm and innovate.”

        One of these “charities” is called Agbioworld. Agbioworld has been called an Astroturf outfit by GM watch – see their piece here. Reading that piece, in particular the accusations (from fake activists) that “greens” want to keep Africans poor, by preventing them from benefitting from GM crops, reminds me of Ridley’s recent writings.

      • Ian Forrester says:

        For many years I have been observing the similarities between AGW deniers and GMO promoters. Ridley is a prime example of some one who is in both these camps. It rather amazes me that lots of people, including scientists, can see exactly the techniques being used by the large fossil fuel companies to protect and expand their business but can”t see that the biotech-agricultural companies are using exactly the same techniques.

        In fact many of the right wing think tanks are both anti-AGW and pro-GMOs. One person attacked me when I pointed out some of the problems with GMOs, particularly in Argentina, and told me that GMWatch was the GMO equivalent of WUWT. In fact AgbioWorld is the GM equivalent of WUWT.

        Why do so many seemingly sensible and educated people not see the problems with GMOs? Is it because they are funded directly or indirectly, by the GMO industry or is it because they believe that GMOs are the solution to all our food needs?

        By the way Ridley’s PhD thesis was entitled “The mating system of the pheasant”.

        I was recruited by Chris Perrins to look at sexual selection in pheasants. Pheasants have brightly colored males and dull-colored females, just like peacocks. They are polygamous. It looked like one male had several mates, which is very unusual in birds. I stuck radio transmitters and number plates on pheasants in the countryside so that I could identify them. I plotted their movements, weighed and measured them, and worked out why some males were getting more mates than others.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks very much Ian.

        It’s certainly true that AGW deniers and GMO promoters are often in the same camp – both Ridley and his brother in law Owen Paterson subscribe to both. Paterson famously accused those sceptical of GMOs as being responsible for causing children in Asia to be blinded, by stopping them from having access to Golden Rice, despite the fact that it is not commercially available.

        We have to consider whether this is all down to the global corporations who fund thinktanks and astroturf outfits to peddle propaganda against climate change and for GMOs. I think it goes further than that: people like Ridley genuinely believe that the technofix approach works, both for food (GMOs) and for climate – see how he is arguing now that adaptation is a better option than mitigation, as well as continuing to deny or at least dismiss AGW concerns. It is a mindset which believes that humans will always find a solution t every problem we create, and it’s merely a question of waiting for the next solution to come along: GMO being the latest in a long line.

        I hadnt realised Ridley did his phD on pheasants. Seems quite appropriate for a huntin shootin fishin chap.

      • Re GMO enthusiasts, a few years ago I put on my blogroll a blog:

        At that time it was written by Luigi Guarino, a well-known scientist in the field of agricultural biodiversity, and Jeremy Cherfas of Garden Organic fame. It’s still an interesting blog but has become increasingly pro-GM and stridently anti-organic over the last year and Jeremy Cherfas seems to no longer be contributing although his name is still on the ‘about us’ page.

        I hardly dare ask on the blog itself for fear of being shouted at. Don’t suppose anybody here knows what’s going on there?

        Here’s a prime example:

        Dave Woods ( a plantbreeder from Scotland, I believe) seems particularly vitriolic with his comment about someone being a “RAFI/ETC clone – an animal that should have retreated to its lair when they messed-up the Community Biodiversity and Conservation Programme (or whatever it was called).”

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