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New coal mine plans defended by business secretary, despite environmental concerns

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The UK’s decarbonisation efforts are being undermined by the government's decision, announced earlier this month, to open a new coal mine in Cumbria, MPs have warned.

Speaking to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, recently appointed business minister Kwasi Kwarteng admitted there is a “slight tension” between the approval of the new mine and the UK’s plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Kwarteng defended his decision not to step in, saying the mine would be used to extract coking coal, a key component of steel manufacturing, rather than thermal coal which is used in energy production.

“We have steel processes, we have industrial processes which use coking coal and if we don’t have sources of coking coal in the UK we will be importing those anyway,” he said while speaking to the committee in an evidence session.

He added: “You are quite right that there is a slight tension between the opening of this mine and our intention to decarbonise.”

The mine flies in the face of advice from the Climate Change Committee that all coal extraction, including coking coal, should be phased out by 2035. It’s also possible that the mine could be forced to close early if stricter climate commitments are passed in future, which would leave investors with a “stranded asset”.

After the project was given the go-ahead earlier this month, campaigners from Friends of the Earth said the decision demonstrated “jaw-dropping inconsistency” from the UK government, which had rejected plans for an opencast mine at Druridge Bay in Northumberland last year.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was also critical, saying it was “utter and rank hypocrisy” to allow the project to go ahead, as it would be a “complete disaster for our children’s future”.

In an attempt to mitigate the concerns over its environmental impact, Kwarteng pointed to a forthcoming industrial decarbonisation strategy and a green steel fund which was encouraging manufacturers to decarbonise their processes.

In 2019, a £35m research network was set up to develop new technologies to lower carbon emissions in the UK’s steel sector.

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “Building back better means supporting the low-carbon production technologies that steelmakers have developed and giving UK industry a viable future, not digging ourselves further into our high-carbon hole.”

Former business secretary Alok Sharma was also present at the evidence session, where he was asked about the Government’s £27bn commitment to build new roads and new homes which do not meet zero carbon standards, both of which have been criticised by environmentalists.

Sharma countered by saying that the government had already committed to phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

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