In his essay The Life of Reason George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I would add that those who don’t learn from the success of others are condemned to repeat their own failures.
The new mine at Whitehaven was acclaimed by local politicians, not least MP Mark Jenkinson, as the only way the region might enjoy a revival of fortunes, both in terms of jobs and long-term prosperity. A look behind the spin reveals this is far from the case.
Sustainable alternatives, which have truly benefited local communities across Europe, have been ignored by what Robert Halfon dubbed the “libertarian Jihadist” wing of the Government, who remain cynically myopic to the potential of a cleaner and cheaper future.
To remain parochial in one’s outlook is to remain in the dark… which is apt for a story on mining.
The argument that coking coal from the putative Whitehaven mine is unwanted by steel producers here or in Europe is now well-rehearsed. The political machinations and obfuscation resulting in local constituents feeling that there is no alternative if they are to see their fortunes rise have received less attention.
On Radio 4’s Any Questions in January 2021, following the Governments’ greenlighting of the mine, prominent anti-wind turbine campaigner Anne Marie Trevelyan repeated the well-trod mantra that coking coal was an essential component in steel production and that the mine would be the way to regenerate the area.
Although pointing out the Government’s general shortcomings on climate, regarding the need for coal panellist David Lammy confessed he was “not an expert.” Neither he nor the presenter had had the nous to examine the facts behind the story. If they had, they might have discovered electric arc smelting has for some time been a cleaner alternative; that United Kingdom-based Liberty House Group had launched its electric arc furnace in Rotherham back in 2018, giving a lead to others including Tata Steel who plan to close their blast furnaces at Port Talbot, replacing them with electric arc furnaces.
Panellists might also have learned about the potential for hydrogen in production. A technique pioneered by Swedish consortium, HYBRIT, involving the direct reduction of iron ore using hydrogen, delivers a superior quality of steel that is easy to handle, transport and store. It has also virtually eliminated CO2 emissions in the reduction process.
Even if not subject to legal action, full production at Whitehaven would not be reached until 2029, at the earliest. A stranded asset if ever there was one!
Local Conservative councillor Chris Whiteside demonstrates an impressive level of cognitive dissonance saying, while welcoming the mine, that UK coking coal was “less damaging to the planet than importing coal from USA or Russia” when data provided from British Steel shows that at least 87% would be exported.
They attempted to reassure environmentalists that the mine would shut down by 2049. Yet, a local renewable industrial base would have no “sell by date” and lead to long-term revitalisation of the region.
The green alternative
An independent report by Cumbria Action for Sustainability estimates that investment in green industries could create 9,000 jobs directly in renewable industries over the next 15 years (half of those in West Cumbria) and 3,800 jobs across other sectors such as transport, industry, retrofitting, renewable heat, renewable electricity and waste. The Local Government Association, of which Cumbria Council is a signatory, projected 17,000 jobs in the North West if investment went towards renewable industries.
Whitehaven, on the other hand, promises a laughable 500 jobs over a single generation.
So why the blinkers? Why did the government cave in to the Neo-Luddites? Local MP Mark Jenkinson boldly declared in Parliament in December 2020, two years after Rotherham’s launch of its electric arc furnace: “There is no commercial technology currently that can replace our reliance on coking coal.”
In this statement, he also rejects the potential for recycling. This exaggeration ignores companies like NUCOR who get high quality steel out of largely recycled steel without owning a coal-fed blast furnace.
It indicates either wilful ignorance, a short attention span, or a talismanic aversion to the very idea of renewables on the part of an MP in the thrall of the Net Zero Scrutiny group of climate deniers (of the urgency of action if not the science), at the expense of his constituents.
The other blind spot, whether suffered by ministers or instilled in the constituency by design, is a lack of consideration of successful regional regeneration seen elsewhere when communities choose future proofing over nostalgic myopia.
Mainstream economists no longer talk of decarbonisation as a cost, but an opportunity. They now widely acknowledge green technology as an investment with returns, both financial and climatic, far outweighing outlay.
This conclusion hasn’t escaped others. Cornwall is exploring its potential as a geothermal energy hub thanks to the geological good luck of hot granite. Humberside is taking advantage of the offshore wind boom, with hundreds of new jobs from the expansion of a wind turbine factory. Labour councillor Daren Hale said: “Investments like this have transformed the city and this latest plan could be a game-changer. It could be critical in supporting the recovery of Hull in a post-Covid economy at a time when so much is uncertain.”
With its “East Anglia 1 Flagship” windfarm, Scottish Power has invested £30mn in port facilities across the East of England and supported 3,600 skilled jobs at its operations and maintenance base. More than half the project’s supply chain was provided by the UK market, with more than £75mn committed to local suppliers. A dedicated skills outreach programme engaged more than 4,200 young people in East Anglia.
Ørsted Industries, overseeing the Walney Extension wind farm from Barrow-in-Furness, supply community grants to help support local groups and organisations around the coastline. They have so far awarded over £7mn to hundreds of local social initiatives and environmental projects.
The other missed trick, so obviously successful elsewhere, is the advantage to a community of a localism policy, giving communities and individuals powers to exercise a greater say in planning decisions, when it comes to retaining the rewards that go with a local renewable manufacturing base.
On the face of it, the UK Government recognises this policy as a “win win” aspiration – investor attraction and a satisfied electorate – and have ostensibly applied a ‘local content’ condition when developers apply for wind farm licences.
However, rather than firm regulation and a clear system of targets and penalties to encourage local content, the Government’s deregulatory inclination has delivered merely “advisory” rather than binding guidance. Laissez-faire policy making has led to frequent reneging by investors, so less than one percent of the UK’s installed renewables capacity is locally owned. Once again it indicates a desire to kowtow to business rather than address the climate emergency.
Green MP Caroline Lucas called the decision “a climate crime against humanity”. She said: “Instead of backing 1000s of green jobs and sustainable, long-term economic revival, the Government has backed a climate-busting, backward-looking, stranded asset coal mine.”
Nicholas Stern, the acclaimed economist who has made climate and public policy central to his work, said: “Opening a coal mine in the UK now is a serious mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political,” […] “Economically, it is investing in the technologies of the last century, not this, and that is the wrong path to growth. Socially, it is pursuing jobs in industries that are on the way out, creating future job insecurity.”
A Government which believes in the supremacy of competition in a free-market economy has staggeringly lost the plot. As The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says “The decision to approve the Cumbria coal mine comes as the UK steel sector calls for government support to transition to low-carbon technology to remain competitive.”
Ex chief scientific advisor Sir David King agrees: “The decision to go ahead with a new coal mine in Cumbria is an incomprehensible act of self-harm. This action by a leading developed economy sets exactly the wrong example to the rest of the world.”
The ideological neoliberal faction of the Government will repeat the lie that the only way to raise people out of fuel poverty is to extract more fossil fuels.
The backbenchers of the Net Zero Scrutiny group take their lead from the likes of John Constable of Net Zero Watch who would dismantle the entire renewable infrastructure in spite of the fact that, because solar and wind power are now so inexpensive, they now subsidise the cost of fossil fuel power generation by tens of millions. Almost all of Scotland’s electricity is now supplied by renewables, and wind turbines can generate two-thirds of the wattage Britain needs.
Mark Jenkinson MP, time to take the blinkers off and see which way the wind blows.
Editor’s note: the coal mine in Cumbria was a decision taken by the planning process (and 2 inquiries) and then accepted by the Government.