Cumbria coal mine: UK Government to face legal challenge from Friends of the Earth

Pictured: Supporters of several environmental groups collaboratively protesting the mine. Image: Friends of the Earth

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.

Government permission for the proposals was granted last month. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove had the final say on the decision, which he made after a string of delays amid two consecutive changes in Prime Minister.

Coal extracted from the mine will be used for steelmaking in the UK and abroad, with around 85% of extracted coal set to be exported. In approving the project, Gove stated his “satisfaction” that there is currently a market for coal in steelmaking in the UK and EU and that there will continue to be as work towards 2050 net-zero targets progresses. Gove stated that he is not a believer in a “compelling case” for electric arc furnaces or direct hydrogen reduction to displace coal in steelmaking, despite investment in these technologies by major steelmakers.

Additionally, the conclusion was that the mine would not increase global emissions, because coal extracted would displace the use of coal extracted elsewhere.

Climate campaigners and steel industry experts have questioned these claims. Another cause of dispute is Gove’s assertion that the mine could be ‘net-zero’ in operation through the use of offsetting schemes. Offset certification provider Gold Standard has publicly stated that this is not a credible approach.

Friends of the Earth is one of the organisations which has criticised the proposals from West Cumbria Mining at every step in the journey. The environmental NGO has today confirmed that it will file a legal claim against the UK Government later this month, on the grounds that the climate impact of the mine has not been thoroughly assessed and that the project is incompatible with the UK’s legally binding emissions target.

Lawyers from Leigh Day Solicitors and the Landmark and Matrix Chambers have been lined up to represent Friends of the Earth if the court decides to hear the case.

“By giving the go-ahead to this polluting and totally unnecessary coal mine the government has not only made the wrong decision for our economy and the climate, we believe it has also acted unlawfully,” said Friends of the Earth lawyer Niall Toru.

Gove has failed to account for the significant climate impacts of this mine, or how the much-needed move to green steelmaking will be impacted by its approval. The steel industry is under no illusion that it must decarbonise if we’re to meet our climate goals, which calls into doubt the long-term viability of the mine and the jobs used to justify it.”

Toru added that green groups “shouldn’t have to take this challenge to court” in a nation with a net-zero target, which has used its presence at UN climate summits to promote a global phase-out of coal in the power sector.

South Lakes Action on Climate Change is also considering legal action against the Government over the approval of the mine but is yet to confirm that it will definitely do so. It wrote to Gove late last year and is poised to submit a legal challenge within the next two weeks.

Net Zero Strategy

Friends of the Earth won a legal challenge against the UK Government, concerning its flagship Net Zero Strategy, at the High Court last summer.

The Strategy was produced in late 2021 as part of preparations for COP26 in Glasgow, with the Government promising a clear plan for all sectors of the economy. Critics of the Strategy have pointed out that it contains no time-bound, sector-specific emissions targets, and that the schemes it funds do not go far enough to decarbonise their respective sectors in line with climate science.

The High Court sided with Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth, ruling that the Strategy is unlawful. It gave the UK Government nine months to update the Strategy, which will bring us through to March 2023.

By this point, Chris Skidmore MP’s net-zero review will be complete and the Government should be working on its detailed response to the resulting recommendations. This should form a good basis for updating the Strategy.

edie’s own Net-Zero Business Barometer survey of 148 energy and sustainability professionals, conducted online in September and October, revealed that most of these professionals are very keen for the Government to update the Strategy as a priority. 59% of respondents classed this move as a top-three priority for policymakers.

Comments (2)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Steel manufacture is a reduction process, removing the oxygen from iron oxide, to leave just iron. Fact.
    The removal may be achieved chemically using carbon, from coal, which occurs in nature. It may also be achieved using hydrogen.
    This latter has to be manufactured, it does not occur, like carbon, free in nature. Fact.
    All this inevitably involves energy, which has to be generated.
    But if carbon is not to be involved, the energy has to be of nuclear origin; wind and solar will not “cut the custard”, they do not have a great enough intensity. Fact.
    Nuclear energy, hydrogen by electrolysis, iron oxide reduction, is a viable, but I suspect expensive, route.
    There is no free lunch in nature, humankind has already eaten it, now we have to find cleverer ways of doing the job.
    Green flag waving is non-productive, sound science IS the answer, used wisely. So swallow the pill!!
    Richard Phillips

    lots of spare oxygen. But

  2. Richard Phillips says:

    Please delete “lots of spare oxygen. But”.
    Richard Phillips

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