A government decision on whether to grant planning permission for a new coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, is expected imminently.
The mine, which is intended to produce coking coal for the steel industry, has been mired in controversy from the outset. Indeed, given the overwhelming weight of evidence against it, many have wondered how the proposal has ever reached this stage.
The intended market for the coal is declining even before the mine has even been opened and claims that it might replace Russian imports have been roundly disproven. On top of this, the mine would also lead to an increase in the emissions that are causing global warming.
“The evidence against this mine is overwhelming. It would increase carbon emissions, its market is already starting to decline, and it won’t replace Russian coal imports. We need a green economy and the new jobs this brings, and areas like West Cumbria must be at the heart of this.”Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, Tony Bosworth
Cumbria coal mine proposal: how it came to be
The application was originally approved by Cumbria County Council back in 2020. But the decision was subsequently ‘called in’ by the government last year after being widely condemned as the UK prepared to host the UN climate summit in Glasgow.
This led to a planning inquiry in September 2021, in which Friends of the Earth was one of the two main opposing parties, alongside the local campaign group South Lakes Against Climate Change (SLACC).
The Planning Inspector’s report has now been sent to the government, and a final decision by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due before 7 July.
The Cumbria coal mine is not beneficial to climate change
A recent article for North West Bylines, argued that “the proposed new mine would have a beneficial impact on the global emissions of greenhouse gases”. But there are many reasons why this is simply not the case. The piece referred to conclusions drawn by Cumbria County Council in 2020 that the development would reduce global emissions, because the coal would be transported over shorter distances than that currently imported to the UK.
But scenarios presented by West Cumbria Mining at the public inquiry showed that Cumbrian coal would form only a small percentage of the mix used by steelmakers in the UK, while the rest would still be imported, meaning transport emissions would continue.
Demand for coking coal is also declining. Only a maximum 13% of the coal would be used by the UK steel industry. The remainder of the coal from Whitehaven would therefore be exported to steelmakers in mainland Europe. But analysis from Friends of the Earth shows that this market is declining before the mine has opened, because European steelmakers are already moving away from coal to low carbon technologies.
“As far as the coal mine in Cumbria is concerned, let’s be absolutely clear, it is absolutely indefensible.
“First of all, 80% of what it produces will be exported, so it is not something largely for internal consumption.
“It is not going to contribute anything to our domestic needs in the terms we’re talking about, the cost of energy and the rest.”Climate Change Committee chairman, Lord Denben
The chair of the Climate Change Committee has written that opening the Cumbrian mine would increase global carbon emissions and impact the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently said that opening new fossil fuel infrastructure would be “moral and economic madness”. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, spoke of ‘consigning coal to history’ at the UN climate talks in Glasgow.
Approving the mine in this context would have untold consequences for the UK’s global reputation on climate.
The coal mine will not replace Russian coal imports
Claims that the mine may help to replace Russian imports are also misleading.
Steelmakers use a blend of coals with different characteristics to produce steel. In their evidence to the planning inquiry, West Cumbria Mining was clear that their target is replacing coal with similar characteristics from the US east coast. Even since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, West Cumbria Mining has not claimed that its coal would replace Russian coal, which has different characteristics to what would be mined in Cumbria.
Cumbria County Council reported (para 7.92) that one of the two main customers (British Steel in Scunthorpe) has expressed doubts about whether it can use Cumbrian coal because of its sulphur content. British Steel has also said that it is not lobbying for the mine. Likewise, CEO of the Materials Processing Institute Chris McDonald said that no-one in the steel industry is calling for the Cumbria coal mine to be built and that the mine “would not displace a single tonne of Russian coking coal from the UK”.
“Michael Gove must heed these words and reject the Cumbria coal mine: it will add to the climate crisis and the market for its product is fast disappearing as the steel industry moves to greener production.
“Mr Gove must also ignore the misguided claims that coal from the Cumbria mine will replace Russian imports – even the mine’s developers don’t think that.”Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, Tony Bosworth
It’s also worth considering how approval of the mine could impact the UK’s climate credibility and ability to influence other countries to do their fair share to address the climate crisis. If a new UK mine were to open there is no evidence that existing mines in the US, Australia or elsewhere would cease production either. Instead, it’s more likely to increase the global supply, which could actually drive down prices and increase the use of coal overall.
The future is sustainable jobs in climate-friendly industries
Locally, much of the political and public debate has focused on whether it can deliver desperately needed jobs for West Cumbria. But the declining demand for coking coal casts doubts over the mine’s medium and long-term prospects, as well as the 500 jobs promised as part of the application.
New fossil fuel extraction is not the way to create secure future employment. The UK is brimming with potential for long-term, sustainable jobs in climate-friendly industries. Lower carbon production is already available at scale: in 2020, 42% of EU steel was made in electric arc furnaces, which don’t use coal. What’s more, the proportion of steel produced in this way will only increase as countries strive to meet their climate goals and steel users, such as the car industry, demand green steel. EU steelmakers are bringing forward the end of coal-based steel production. For example, Swedish steelmaker SSAB plans to transform all its production in Scandinavia to electric arc furnaces powered by green energy by 2030, much sooner than its original 2045 target date.
Areas like West Cumbria should be at the forefront of government plans to transform our economy, create new jobs and build a greener future. According to the Local Government Association, there is potential for over 6,000 green jobs in Cumbria by 2030, in areas such as energy efficiency, solar power, offshore wind, and low carbon heating. Almost 600 of these could be in Copeland, the area where the Cumbria mine would be built.
“Cumbria has so many renewable resources to provide energy – water, wind and solar – and we should most definitely not be taking the backwards step of opening a new coal mine. I am very clear that fossil fuels should stay in the ground and that we should invest fully in zero carbon energy instead and lower carbon methods of producing steel.”Westmorland and Lonsdale MP, Tim Farron
It’s clear that the focus of the future should be on green investments, not more coal mines.
Editor’s note: This article was written by a Friends of the Earth campaigner from the North West branch in response to another article we published on the coal mine.
The plan of opening a coal mine in Cumbria to resource coking coal for steel production is a very controversial subject. Whether it is justified is truly a complex matter, and all sides of the argument need to be examined so that we understand the various factors of keeping the carbon footprint of steel production as low as possible. Discussion of whether to mine coal in Cumbria or to keep on shipping it from abroad needs to be maintained so it becomes clear why a decision has been made and how the consequences can be mitigated.
It is the decision of North West Bylines to publish all arguments for and against the Cumbria mine as long as these arguments are fact-based and well-reasoned. In this way we hope to provide an open platform for discussion of the subject from all perspectives.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏