UK defends approval of first deep coal mine in 30 years

The mine would extract coking coal from under the Irish Sea to be used in steel production. (Image courtesy of West Cumbria Mining.)

Despite pressure from the UK’s climate change advisors, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office says it will not intervene in Cumbria County Council’s decision to approve the country’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years.

The government interrupted the development of West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery project, in north-west England, in October while it decided whether to call in the application or hand the decision back to local authorities.

Cumbria’s council announced in January it had received confirmation that the decision to allow the coal mine would not be reversed.

Since first proposed, the project has faced steep opposition from environmental groups urging the government to intervene and block it. They claim the new coal mine would emit 8 million tonnes of carbon annually, undermining the country’s pledge to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

As the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate summit in November, considered the most important climate negotiations since the Paris agreement in 2015, the chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has called planning minister Robert Jenrick to reconsider the project’s approval.

CCC’s chair Lord Deben said in a letter to Jenrick that while it was not the council’s role to act as a regulator or a planning authority, he would urge the minister to consider further the UK’s policy towards all new coal developments.

“Net-zero” goal questioned

The planned mine is expected to produce as much as 3.1 million tonnes of metallurgical coal a year until 2049, one year before the country must have net zero emissions. While the UK will use some of that coal in its steel industry, 85% of it is marked for export to Europe.

In that period, the mine provide 500 jobs, but the CCC also expects it to add about 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent of emissions each year. 

“Of course, job creation is absolutely vital to communities but we must look forward to the jobs of 21st century, not back to those in declining industries,” Greenpeace UK’s policy director Doug Parr said in a statement. 

“If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, giving the go-ahead to a new coal mine takes us in completely the wrong direction,” Friends of the Earth said in a separate statement.

A study by the centre-right think tank Bright Blue, published in October, shows that most in the UK are skeptical about achieving the net zero target by 2050.

England’s last operating deep coal mine, Kellingley, closed in 2015 and the country’s last coal mine stopped operating last year.

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