County council to reconsider Cumbria coalmine application
The future of a proposed coalmine in Cumbria has been thrown into doubt after an abrupt U-turn by the county council, which will now reconsider planning permission for the mine in the light of the government’s greenhouse gas targets.
Cumbria county council granted planning permission to the mine last October, and last month the communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, decided not to “call in” the mine for a central government decision. That set the stage for West Cumbria Mining to press ahead with plans for the UK’s first new deep coalmine in three decades, at Woodhouse Colliery, near Whitehaven.
But on Tuesday the county council announced that new information on the government’s carbon budgets had forced a rethink. The Committee on Climate Change published advice to the government in December on how to reach the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050.
Ten days ago, the committee also wrote to Jenrick to warn that the mine would produce more emissions than any other in the UK, and would give “a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities” as the government prepares to host a vital UN climate summit, Cop26, this November in Glasgow.
The decision by the county council to reconsider the mine was cheered by environmental campaigners, who have strongly opposed the mine. Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “If Cumbria county council decides it should change its mind, it’s a U-turn that would be very welcome. It’s absolutely right that the county should reconsider plans for a new coalmine in light of evidence demonstrating how damaging this would be for our climate, and for the UK’s international reputation.”
Last week, the eminent climate scientist James Hansen wrote to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, saying that pressing ahead with the mine would show “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people“. Developing country experts also said that for the UK to open a new coalmine would be “shocking”, and would damage its credibility as host of the Cop26 summit.
Scientists have grown increasingly concerned about the mine. Ed Gemmell, the managing director of Scientists Warning Europe, said: “[It] would be disastrous for the net zero plans for the UK and send an appalling signal to the rest of the world in this critical year for the climate. Many top scientists now regard even 2050 as recklessly too late [to reach net zero emissions] if there is to be any chance of keeping the world under 1.5C. The majority of councils in the UK have made climate emergency declarations – Cumbria county council risks being the black sheep of the family if it allows this coalmine to go ahead.”
Cumbria’s county councillors are now likely to come under pressure both from green campaigners and scientists, and from proponents of the mine, unless the government decides to call in the decision.
The proposed GBP165m mine would produce 2.7m tonnes a year of coking coal, for use in industrial applications such as steel-making, as opposed to thermal coal for burning in power stations. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, told MPs last month that this meant the mine should be allowed to go ahead, as it fell outside government pledges to phase out coal for electricity.
But green experts pointed out that steel-makers would be forced to reduce their emissions too under the UK’s net zero targets, by using new technology, such as hydrogen. About 85% of the coking coal from the mine was planned for export, and there is no shortage of such coal globally.
Proponents also said the mine would create up to 500 new jobs in the economically depressed area. “There are huge levels of deprivation here,” said John Kane, a former GMB union leader, citing several wards in the area, including the one he represents, Kells, and the Woodhouse estate, as among the most deprived in England. “We have a proud history of mining in this area, going back centuries – so it’s natural people in Copeland would want to see it return.”
The government has repeatedly said the decision on the mine is a local matter. However, Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, urged Jenrick to take back control of the process, which is within his powers. “The government now has a second chance to do the right thing and call it in,” he said. “The UK cannot claim to be a climate leader while opening a new coalmine, and ministers must realise that by doing so they undermine our credibility both at home and abroad.”
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, said: “The government now needs to step in, show some climate leadership and stop this mine once and for all. The government also now need to work with urgency with the steel industry to advance the technologies to make steel without environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
Parr said: “Any shift [by Cumbria county council] does not let the government off the hook. Ministers should be ashamed of their failure to step in on an issue of obvious international significance. Even if the coal mine is canned by Cumbria, this is still a global embarrassment for the UK in a year when we were supposed to be setting an example on climate action for the world to follow.”