west cumbria mining

New coking coal mine would invite accusations of climate hypocrisy

Image credit: west cumbria mining

A public inquiry has heard that while the first new coal mine to open in the UK for decades would create job opportunities in Cumbria, it would exacerbate climate change and leave the UK open to accusations of hypocrisy ahead of Cop26.

West Cumbria Mining (WCM) wants to open a deep coal mine – the first in 30 years – on the former Marchon chemical works on the outskirts of Whitehaven, Cumbria. The mine is intended for the extraction of metallurgical or coking coal for use in the steel industry; steelmaking is a particularly challenging sector to decarbonise. WCM first put forward its proposal in 2017 and it has been approved three times by Cumbria County Council.

The plans were roundly criticised by climate scientists and campaigners as being entirely at odds with the government’s pledge to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050; an effort that will require rapid cuts in fossil fuel use, among other measures. In particular, critics drew attention to the need for the UK to establish credibility regarding decarbonisation ambitions ahead of its presidency of the UN COP26 summit in November. The UK is also co-founder of the 'Powering Past Coal Alliance': a group working to speed up the end of the use of coal in power generation.

In January, the government declined to intervene in the decision, with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stating that coal would be imported if not mined domestically. However, in March, the communities secretary Robert Jenrick wrote to Cumbria County Council to “call in” the application so a Planning Inspectorate inquiry can be held on the matter.

The inquiry was opened by chair Stephen Normington, with opening statements from both WCM and opponents of its plans.

Gregory Jones QC, who represented WCM, said that most criticism is not against this specific development, but relates to the impact of coking coal and steelmaking on the climate. He emphasised that the coal extracted at the new mine was not intended as an energy source but as coking coal for steelmaking.

Jones said: “It’s all too easy to object to this development because this is a coal mine, coal is dirty and bad.” He said that blocking the project would result in the coking-related issues being hidden offshore, as the UK would still use coking coal from the US. He said that the coal mine would be a world first as a “net-zero compliant” mine and a step towards a greener steelmaking sector.

He argued that the mine would provide 532 permanent jobs, 80 per cent of which would be filled from the local workforce, and support a further 1,000 jobs in the supply chain. Jones added: “This is a fantastic opportunity for the region and it’s no surprise it’s got local support.”

Representing South Lakes Action on Climate Change, Estelle Dehon said it is a “myth” that locally mined coal would only be used by the UK steelmaking industry and as an alternative to importing US coal as it can be exported easily. She said that the “magic of mitigation” measures and carbon offsetting do not exist.

Dehon cited the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which warned that the world must take drastic, immediate action if it is to keep global warming within 1.5°C. The IPCC report prompted calls for a step up in decarbonisation ambition and was described by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres as “code red for humanity”. Dehon added the UK must “talk the talk and walk the walk” when it comes to tackling climate change.

Meanwhile, Paul Brown QC, representing Friends of the Earth, said: “Climate change is the single greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. The UK can only credibly claim to be a world leader on climate practice if it practices what it preaches.” He added that the mine would become a “stranded asset” as changes in the steelmaking sector - such as increased recycling, new green steel technology, as well as existing reserves - will reduce demand for coking coal.

The final decision will be left to the discretion of the communities secretary.

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