Environment

All the reasons why the new Cumbria coal mine is a terrible idea

The government says the mine is needed for steelmaking, but the steel industry doesn't seem to want it.

Proposed image of Woodhous Colliery

The mine is expected to cost £165m to build.(Credit: West Cumbria Mining Company)

The UK government has given the go-ahead for a new Cumbria coal mine in Whitehaven, the first in the UK in 30 years. 

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove approved the £165m mine, which would be used for making steel rather than electricity, on Wednesday. The decision has been condemned by climate organisations and the government’s own climate advisers. 

So why do it?

A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up said: “This coal will be used for the production of steel and would otherwise need to be imported. It will not be used for power generation. The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”

A letter published by the department explaining the decision also claimed that the proposed mine would be “much better placed to mitigate” emissions in comparison to other mines across the world. It added that the development would be a “substantial contribution to the national and regional economy.”

This doesn’t all stand up to reality though. Here’s why the government should think again.

1. There is no demand for the coal

The new mine will produce coking coal, which is only used to make steel. However, the British steel industry has not spoken out in favour of the mine nor have they committed to purchasing the coal that would be generated from the mine. 

In May, the former CEO of British Steel, Ron Deelen, questioned the need for the new mine and said that there was “more than enough coal” for steelmaking. He told The Times, “It’s a complete contradiction with what the government is saying about wanting to greenify the UK.” 

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Following the announcement that it was going ahead, Deelen told The Guardian that the mine was “unnecessary” and argued for “green investment” in the steel industry.

The government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) said that 85 percent of the coal from the proposed mine is planned for export to Europe, but analysis by Friends of the Earth found that the market for this coal is severely declining due to a move to greener solutions.

British Steel and Tata Steel, the mine’s likeliest customers, previously expressed reluctance to buy the coal generated there. British Steel said that the sulphur content in the coal may be too high for them to use while Tata Steel have said they are looking to move away from coal use entirely.

2. The Cumbria coal mine would likely increase carbon emissions

The mine is projected to increase greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 0.4 million tonnes a year, according to the CCC.  It is the equivalent to the emissions produced by 200,000 cars or 170,000 homes.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth said that the decision was “misguided” and “will add to global climate emissions.”

“Scientists are clear that new fossil fuel projects are not compatible with meeting global climate goals to limit warming to 1.5C,” he added.

However, the Planning Inspectorate’s report on the mine said it would have “an overall neutral effect on” emissions, while the government argued that the mine would not affect the UK’s plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The government also previously committed to removing coal as a power source by 2025, which the Department of Levelling Up confirmed is still the aim.

The mine would increase emissions by 0.4 million tonnes. (Credit: Chris Leboutillier/Unsplash)

3. It would damage the UK’s climate credibility

The decision to green-light the mine comes one year after the UK hosted Cop26, where it pledged to phase out coal power in a deal with almost 200 countries. 

Lord Deben, who chairs the CCC, said that the mine “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities.”

Alok Sharma, MP for West Reading and president of Cop26, tweeted last week in advance of the decision that the mine would “damage” the UK’s reputation “as a leader in the global fight against climate change”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak previously claimed he wanted to make the UK a “clean energy superpower” but environmentalists say opening a new coal mine is in direct opposition to that aim. 

Greenpeace UK’s Policy Director Doug Parr said: “The UK government risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership. How can we possibly expect other countries to rein in fossil fuel extraction when we’re building new coal mines here?”

Climate organisations have also warned that though the mine is being used for steelmaking rather than energy production, other countries may not make the same distinction.

4. There are other ways to create jobs in the area

The Department of Levelling Up has said that the mine would bring “considerable economic benefits” through the creation of 500 jobs at the mine itself and a further 1,500 jobs indirectly. 

But, according to the Local Government Association, there is the potential for over 6,000 green jobs to be created in Cumbria by 2040 in areas such as energy efficiency, solar power, offshore wind, and low carbon heating. 

They say that at least 600 of these jobs could be in Copeland, where the mine is due to be built, and the rest would be spread out across Cumbria. 

Friends of the Earth said that the declining demand for coal “casts doubts over the mine’s medium and long-term prospects” and analysis by the organisation showed that a programme to improve the energy efficiency of homes could create as many jobs as the proposed mine, and green jobs, at that.

 Dr Ruth Balogh, coordinator of West Cumbria Friends of the Earth, said, “West Cumbria needs sustainable green jobs for the future – not a dirty coal mine.

5. The impact on the landscape is “unacceptable”

The mine is estimated to be the size of roughly 60 football fields (23 hectares) and will be the height of 3.5 double-decker buses. 

During the planning inquiry, Friends of the Earth found that the mine would cause “a significant degree of harm to local character and significantly affect views from the coast-to-coast footpath and other local paths,” which they said was “unacceptable.”

They added that the mine’s impact on the local area is contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework, which states all planning decisions should protect and enhance valued landscapes.

Bosworth said: “West Cumbria deserves far better than this.”

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