CCC ‘condemns’ Cumbria coal mine decision as business groups continue voicing disappointment

The mine is set to be developed on the former Marchon Chemical Works site in Cumbria

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) chairman has published a statement responding to the fact that, late on Wednesday (7 December), Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove gave the green light for West Cumbria Mining’s proposals for a new deep coal mine to produce coal for use in the steelmaking sector.

Cumbria County Council initially approved West Cumbria Mining’s proposals for the project in October 2020. However, the decision was called in by the UK Government in early 2021 on the grounds of the potential climate impact of the use of the extracted coal. Ministers asked for a full assessment of the mine’s compatibility with national and international climate targets.

After a series of delays, the Government confirmed last night that it was satisfied that the proposals would not jeapordise national or international climate targets.

Lord Deben has stated that “phasing out coal use is the clearest requirement of the global effort towards net-zero” – whether in the power generation sector or steelmaking or other heavy industry. He noted that, at COP26 and COP27, the UK has pushed for countries to agree to phase coal out, not just down. As such, Deben argues, approving the Whitehaven project “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities”.

Deben added: “The UK’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by this decision.”

As much as 85% of coal produced from the mine will be exported, Deben noted, drawing on projections from West Cumbria Mining.

Deben’s statement also specifically highlights the CCC’s previous advice on the use of coal for steelmaking in the UK. It continues: “We gave clear advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget that steel-making in the UK should be entirely low-carbon by 2035. By locking in use of coking coal, this decision appears to narrow the options for decarbonising steel in the UK.”

The document detailing the Government’s reasons for approving the mine states that Gove is “satisfied that there is currently a UK and European market for coal and that, although there is no consensus on what future demand may be [in these markets], it is likely that a global demand would remain”.

The approval document states that Gove “does not consider that there is a compelling case that hydrogen direct reduction will result a significant reduction in the demand for coking coal over the next decade”. This is also true of other clean steel innovations including improvements in material efficiency and electric arc furnaces. The document does note that steelmakers using coal will need to fit carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to transition to net-zero.

Deben disagrees and has stated that hydrogen direct reduction has made much progress internationally as a means of decarbonising steel production.

With the decision on the Whitehaven project in mind, the CCC has stated that it is now “more important” for the Government to bring forward support for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for the steelmaking sector. It believes that the Government has the opportunity to add new measures relating to the Energy Security Bill, which was introduced under Boris Johnson, paused under Liz Truss and is now due to return to Parliament in the new year.

Economic impact

As expected, environmental NGOs and representatives for the Green Party and Labour Party have already spoken out against Gove’s decision.

But many in the private sector are also opposed to the mine, questioning its likely impact on the economy and arguing that it will undermine the steel sector’s concerted efforts to invest in low-carbon technologies. British Steel is currently seeking more than £1.5bn from the Government to implement technologies such as electric arc furnaces, which it argues are necessary to reduce operational emissions in line with national climate commitments. Ministers have, so far, denied this request.

The Aldersgate Group of businesses has called Gove’s decision “deeply disappointing from an industrial strategy, market signal, environmental and diplomatic perspective”.

Its executive director Nick Molho elaborated: “The UK has clearly embarked on a transition towards net zero emissions and heavy industries such as steel and cement are moving away from high carbon fuels. Several steel makers in the UK and globally are now making plans to move away from coal and instead manufacture green steel through cleaner technologies such as electric arc furnaces powered by renewable energy or through hydrogen direct reduction. Those are the technologies and globally relevant supply chains that the UK should seek to gain a competitive advantage in and where new and secure jobs can be created across the country and for the long-term.

“A year ago, the UK Government led a concerted campaign to encourage a wide range of businesses and investors to accelerate efforts to reduce their own emissions by encouraging them to sign up to the United Nations’ Race to Zero Campaign. Giving the go-ahead to a new open coal mine in the UK a year later sends a very confusing signal to the business and investment community and is not at all consistent with the actions of a Government seeking to de-risk and accelerate investment flows towards low-carbon technologies to hit net zero.”

The UN-backed Race to Zero campaign notably toughened up its membership criteria this summer. Among the new additions are requirements to end fossil fuel finance and lobbying which goes against climate science.

Taking a similar line of argument to the Aldersgate Group is the Climate Group. Through its SteelZero initiative, launched in late 2020, the organisation is bringing together businesses across the steel value chain to unify demand signals for low-carbon and net-zero steel.

The Climate Group’s head of industry Jen Carson said:  “The proposal to open this new coalmine is at odds with the steel sector, and the UK Government’s net-zero pledge. The trajectory of the steel industry is clear – businesses are committed to buying and using responsibly produced steel, driving the decarbonisation of the industry over the next decade. SteelZero members are leading the charge by signalling to their supply chains that they need low-emission steel. Every purchasing decision, every investment decision – and every policy decision, must have climate front and centre.”

Comments (4)

  1. Kirsten Morton says:

    Why or why are the Government approving licences for coal mines in this day and age. All investment should be directed towards green energy and not fossil fuels.

  2. Albert Dowdeswell says:

    Sweden are now producing steel heated by “Green hydrogen”, the first load of “Green Steel” was shipped to Volvo in August 2022. Why isn’t the UK spending money on this instead of digging for coal?
    Search:- and click on fossil free steel.

  3. Peter Reineck says:

    The outrage is difficult to understand given that this new capacity to produce specialty coking coal will not increase production capacity for coking or steel and will merely replace other coal currently mined elsewhere based on better quality and/or lower price.
    I suggest that critics focus their ire on steel producers using coke, and adjacent coking operations. Many of these are in China, a country producing more CO2 than any other, much of it from new power plants and steel works etc. built in the last 30 years.

  4. Ken Pollock says:

    How curious that the comments make no mention of “balance of payments” – such an outdated concept, when you are tackling a subject like Net Zero! Who cares if you buy everything from China (1110 coal mines and more on the way…)
    Plus “green” hydrogen for making steel. No-one said it was not possible but hang on a moment. It means cracking water to generate the hydrogen and then using that to fire the furnace. How much spare electricity do we have to make this hydrogen? Ask Switzerland – asking EV owners to only use them for essential journeys as they are so near blackout!!!
    What about the UK? We have les than half a million EVs. Wait till we have converted 32 million ice cars to EVs. Plus of course 20 million homes with gas boilers that will go over to heat pumps.
    Now tell me we have plenty of electricity left over to produce hydrogen to make steel. 100 units of energy in, gives 25 units of hydrogen out. Not a good deal.
    Still, you carry on dreaming, while some of us are happy to support digging up some of our own coal (actually like Germany, except they prefer lignite, the dirtiest coal…)
    It is a pity more of our politicians are not engineers or at least talk to engineers…

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie