Since 2014 I have been keeping au fait with West Cumbria Mining’s plans for the new Woodhouse colliery to produce coking coal for the steel industry. At that time, informed opinion was not generally negative. Now, as time has moved on, experts are queuing up to say just how bad an idea it is.
Steel producers don’t want Cumbria’s coal
Steel producers – often described as potential users of Cumbria’s coal – are not lobbying for this mine to open. As a carbon-intensive industry, they know they must change quickly. Steelmakers in Sweden and Germany, and even in parts of the Far East, are way ahead of us in the transition to green steel, using green hydrogen or using electric arc furnaces in place of coking coal. Tata Steel in South Wales are already asking for help to change to electric arc furnaces, while British Steel can’t use coal from this mine because of its high sulphur content.
European steelmakers are transitioning quickly, and we should not be left behind or our steel industry will go to the wall. Producing green hydrogen from renewable energy sources for the steel industry would be a much safer future for the windiest county in the windiest country in Europe.
False claims of carbon neutrality
As reported in The Guardian, West Cumbria Mining is claiming it will render itself carbon neutral through “proposals to mitigate residual emissions by buying carbon credits from the Gold Standard carbon credit organisation or an equivalent”. However, senior executives of the Gold Standard organisation have called these claims “nonsense” and “greenwashing”.
Legitimate offset claims are those that come from businesses seeking to avoid or reduce emissions. Some 9 million tonnes of carbon a year of planned increased emissions from the use of the coking coal can’t just be magicked away by off-setting.
A chaotic planning process for Woodhouse colliery
The planning application was approved by Cumbria County Council in 2020 but this was followed by a public enquiry and government delays. It has finally and controversially been greenlit by communities secretary Michael Gove, with The Times revealing that the planning inspector who recommended approval is an ex-miner.
This is the latest move in a chaotic process that has seen the announcement delayed three times and then brought forward by one day. It would, of course, have been embarrassing to announce permission for a coal mine while still holding the chair of COP26, or even during COP27, though no one was in any doubt that the government was desperate to grant consent. Sure enough, having been through many levelling up secretaries and come back full circle to Michael Gove, approval was granted on Wednesday 7 September just after 6pm.
Lobbying by Conservatives, acquiescence from Labour
Local Conservatives MPs and the Conservative mayor of Copeland had lobbied relentlessly for the mine. Local Labour councillors have maintained an eloquent silence, leaving the Green Party as the only political party campaigning against the mine.
And now, as reported in the local paper on the day of the decision, the Labour leader of the new unitary authority, Mark Fryer, is going all-in on its employment opportunities: “Our communities have been promised economic benefits from this mine and it is now the job of the company to ensure these 500 jobs – the majority for local people – and the associated infrastructure is delivered”.
From the other side of the county, MP Tim Farron (Lib Dem) has come out vocally against the mine and presented a bill to parliament to try to ensure green jobs for Cumbria. Greens will join him to continue to lobby for a better alternative.
Many local people are determined to continue to resist this decision, not least because, as a means of increasing employment, the opening of a mine was never this area’s only option.
There have been several studies into an alternative future for west Cumbria and the jobs that could be created if government investment was available for true levelling up. In ‘The potential for green jobs in Cumbria’, Cumbria Action for Sustainability estimated that 9000 such jobs could be created over the 15 years to 2037, which is our target year for reaching net-zero in Cumbria. 3,800 would be jobs for the long term, in transport, waste management, insulation, and renewable energy. Almost half of those would be in west Cumbria, far outweighing the numbers promised in the coal mine.
This is what all those who oppose the mine will be lobbying for, while we wait the outcome of deliberations to see if a legal challenge is possible.