Outrage as UK’s first deep coal mine in more than 30 years approved by Government

Pictured: An artist's impression of the completed mine. Image: West Cumbria Mining Company

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.

A decision was due from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in July 2022, but a delay was confirmed in light of Boris Johnson’s resignation. A new date was set for early November but, again, this date was missed. The Government then told media representatives to expect a decision on or before 8 December.

The Department has this evening (7 December) published its decision to approve the mine. Green groups across the UK have been expecting this decision in recent days. The decision document 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”.

West Cumbria Mining has defended the potential climate impact of the mine by stating, time and again, that the coal extracted will not be burned to generate electricity. Instead, it will be used in the steelmaking sector. It has argued that its methods for extracting coal would be lower-emission than those used abroad and that emissions from transporting the coal would be avoided.

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 innovation 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.

The document adds that Gove is aware that “many of those in opposition to the development expressed a view that there is no need for a new coal mine as existing global reserves can satisfy the demand for HVA coal” and that he has read the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) energy pathway to net-zero by 2050. “However…he agrees that this does not necessarily mean that the other resources should remain unused, particularly if such exploitation would be by mining methods that take into account the need to be net-zero compliant”.

It concludes that “there is broad consistency between the assumptions underlying the Climate Change Committee’s net-zero pathway from the mining sector and the projected emissions from the mine by 2050”. West Cumbria Mining has pledged to end operations in 2049 at the latest. Operations are actually likely to be far shorter – but that, in itself, raises questions around the just transition and levelling up.

Immediate backlash

As expected, the decision has immediately drawn much criticism from across the UK’s green economy.

Lord Nicholas Stern said: “Opening a coal mine in the UK now is a serious mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political. Economically, it is investing in the technologies of the last century, not this, and that is the wrong path to growth. Socially, it is pursuing jobs in industries that are on the way out, creating future job insecurity.

“Environmentally, it is adding to world supply and thus consumption of coal and releasing greenhouse gases when there is an urgent need to reduce them. And politically, it is undermining the UK’s authority on the most important global issue of our times.”

Indeed, the Government first called in the mine ahead of COP26 in Glasgow last November.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: When we need a clean, green industrial strategy fit for the future, this Government has backed a climate-busting, backward-looking, business-wrecking, stranded asset coal mine.

“Let’s be clear, this mine is a climate crime against humanity – and such a reckless desire to dig up our dirty fossil fuel past will be challenged every step of the way.

“The steel industry neither needs nor wants this coal mine. Not only would it not displace a single tonne of Russian coking coal from UK imports – but British Steel, one of the two major steel companies in the UK, has said it could not use the mine’s coal due to its high sulphur content. So this coal is being dug up purely for exports abroad.

“Why should global emitters like China and India listen to us when just last month at COP27 we recommitted to “phase down coal”, while we’re now phasing it back in again? This decision simply confirms that the UK’s climate credibility on the world stage is in tatters.”

Building on Lucas’s point about British Steel’s bid for decarbonisation, the firm’s former chief executive Ron Deelan said: “This is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry which is not waiting for more coal as there is enough on the free market available. The British steel industry needs green investment in electric arc furnaces and hydrogen, to protect jobs and make the UK competitive.”

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.

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