Cumbria coal mine: Government won't block UK's first deep coal mine in three decades

Despite pressure from green groups, the UK Government has said it will not intervene in Cumbria County Council's decision to approve a deep coal mine in Whitehaven - the first facility of its kind to gain planning approval in 30 years.

Image: West Cumbria Mining Company

Image: West Cumbria Mining Company

The County Council approved plans put forward by West Cumbria Mining (WCM) late last year, but was told that the Government had the right to call in the decision under planning laws. In a statement on Wednesday (6 January), the local authority said it had received confirmation from Whitehall that this course of action would not be taken.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick reportedly sent a letter to councillors stating that the Government is "committed to giving more power to councils to make their own decisions on planning issues". He wrote that he was wrote that he was "content that [the application for the coal mine] should be determined by the local planning authority".

West Cumbria Mining claims that the mine will be able to open 24 months after construction begins. It hopes to extract 2.5 million tonnes of coal from the undersea mine every year, for use in the UK and European steel industry.

The coal will not be used to generate electricity, given that coal-powered electricity generation must be brought offline by 2024. The environmental argument from West Cumbria Mining is that using locally sourced coal for steelmaking mitigates emissions from international transport; the sector currently imports around 45 tonnes every year from the US, Canada, Russia and Australia. WCM has also outlined plans for a carbon offsetting scheme.

On the social piece, the company has said the mine will create 500 jobs and pay into a community fund for 10 years. 

Anger and disappointment

In total, 2,300 objections to the mine have been logged since 2017. Opposing groups include Friends of the Earth, WWF, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local residents’ organisation Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole.

Critics of the project argue that it could stifle progress towards aligning the UK’s steel sector with the 2050 net-zero target. Globally, steel is accountable for around 7% of global emissions from fuel use. Researchers believe that a combination of electrification, energy storage, alternative fuels and circular economy innovations are needed to align the sector with net-zero. Carbon capture and offsetting are also being explored by some producers.

"Of course, job creation is absolutely vital to communities but we must look forward to the jobs of 21st century, not back to those in declining industries,” Greenpeace UK’s policy director Doug Parr said. The UK Government is notably targeting two million ‘green-collar’ jobs by 2030 and has set up a taskforce to deliver against this ambition.

Green groups also said that the decision to permit the project would send the wrong message ahead of COP26 in November. The UK’s campaign as host spotlights the fact that it is the first major economy to set a legally-binding net-zero target and calls on other nations to follow suit.

"Global leadership on the climate emergency means leaving coal in the ground, where it belongs,” Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth said, calling the decision “jaw-droppingly inconsistent” with long-term climate targets.

Sarah George



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