Will a new coal mine erode the UK’s environmental credibility?

coal mine

Last year at COP26, held in Glasgow, the conference was told to “consign coal to history”, and Boris Johnson, the then British prime minister, said he was “not in favour of more coal”. However, despite the position held during the UK’s COP presidency, the Government have now taking the controversial decision to approve the development of a new coal mine in Whitehaven, West Cumbria.

In a letter from the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities, the Government note their satisfaction in current and future international markets for coal, as well as the creation of over 500 jobs in the region, as reasons for them taking the decision to approve the development.

Since 2014, West Cumbria Mining Ltd has been looking to extract 2.78 million tonnes a year of coking coal against the backdrop of opposition from action groups such as the South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) and Friends of the Earth, both of which presented evidence as formal participants at a public inquiry into the mine in September 2021. 

Coking coal “unfit for UK steel industry” 

According to the government, coal extracted from the site at Whitehaven is to ensure supply for coal used as ‘coke’ in the steelmaking industry. Coke has been considered an essential fuel and reactant in the blast furnace process for primary steelmaking – therefore, demand for coking coal is highly coupled to the demand for steel. 

However, campaigners have pointed out that the grade of coking coal that is set to be extracted at the mine in Whitehaven is unfit to use due to high levels of sulphur – a substance which comes under heavy regulation. For example, between 2020 and 2029, the UK government has set in place a single annual ceiling of 323.1 thousand tonnes of sulphur dioxide emissions, and continues to place stricter limits on the sulphur content of liquid fuels. 

Anne Harris, a campaigner at the Coal Action Network, says that the decision by the Government to allow this new underground coking coal mine is illogical and dangerous. 

“Over 85 per cent of the coal would be exported out of the UK. In the UK, there are two steelworks using blast furnaces – of these, British Steel, operating the Scunthorpe steelworks says that is will not use the coal because of its high sulphur content, while Tata’s Port Talbot steelworks is asking the government for financial assistance to decarbonise its plant and save its staff from redundancy.” 

Harris notes that both SLACC and Friends of the Earth’s lawyers are studying the detail of the decision to approve the Whitehaven coking coal mine and, if there are grounds to do so, are ready to bring a High Court claim against the decision to grant planning permission. If such a claim succeeded, the court could strike the decision down and send it back to ministers to redetermine. 

The Government’s own advisory committee has also been outspoken in its criticism. Responding to the announcement, Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, points toward the inherent flaws in the government’s thinking in proceeding with the mine: “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. A strong signal has been given to the market that steel production via hydrogen is not favoured by government, despite this technology making most progress internationally as a means of decarbonising steel production. Achieving the necessary decarbonisation in the UK now appears to be dependent on successful, rapid deployment of carbon capture and storage. 

“Additionally, although project developers estimate that 85 per cent of the mine’s output will be exported, it is not clear where these export markets will lie. The International Energy Agency’s recent World Energy Outlook sees a decline in global coking coal demand in all of its scenarios, especially from the end of the 2020’s, when more modern decarbonised steel facilities come online. Global use of coking coal is projected to reduce by 63 per cent by 2050 if countries achieve their present emissions commitments, and by 88 per cent if Net Zero is achieved globally by 2050.” 

A mockery of the UK’s green credentials 

Although there has been a lot of attention on the Whitehaven site being the first new coal mine to be permitted in 30 years, Harris points out this is not strictly accurate. By Coal Action Network’s count, there have been 10 opencast coal mines approved since 2008 alone, with the last underground mine – providing coal for power stations – approved in 2014. 

“The New Crofton Co-Operative Colliery drift mine was approved, but as not produced coal, something that could well happen at Whitehaven,” explains Harris. “In addition to the planning permission that has now been granted, West Cumbria Mining Ltd. also need to secure permission for the actual mining area, which is under the sea. This process is even less transparent compared to securing planning permission on land.”  

Given the clear conflict of interest with their own Net Zero targets, Molly Scott Cato, professor of economics at the University of Roehampton, and former Green MEP, says that she believes the Government has failed on their climate change commitment, and that there must be a renewed focus on utilising UK renewable energy resources. 

“If the government was taking the climate crisis seriously, the answer to the question on whether to give permission for a new coal mine in West Cumbria is clear: no.” 

The UK already has extraordinary renewable energy resources, including onshore and offshore wind, solar, and marine and tidal resource, she explains, and the people of West Cumbria would benefit more from green jobs in those sectors. The government, therefore, should be seeking to become a global leader in the technologies of the future green economy. 

Instead, Scott Cato suggests the government has cynically delayed the decision on the new coal mine until the end of the UK’s COP presidency, which finished just a fortnight ago. 

“COP President Alok Sharma was right to warn that the UK’s ‘hard-won international reputation’ over the climate emergency would be undermined by a decision to allow investment in further damaging coal extraction.” 

“This decision grows global emissions and undermines UK efforts to achieve Net Zero,” agrees Lord Deben. “It runs counter to the UK’s stated aims as COP26 President, and sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities. The UK’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by this decision.” 

With international reaction roundly condemning the news – from the director of energy and climate think-tank, Power Shift Africa, saying that the UK is “trashing its record and making a mockery of its green credentials”, to the prime minister of Fiji asking: “Is this the future we fought for under the Glasgow Pact?” – it is hard to disagree. 

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