Allowing coal to be extracted from this proposed mine for over a quarter of a century completely undermines the government’s credibility on the climate crisis.
A crowdfund campaign to finance legal action against the approval of a deep coal mine in Cumbria has passed its initial target of £10,000 just two days after it was launched.
South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) wants to challenge a decision by Cumbria County Council to give the go-ahead to the project through judicial review. More than £16,300 had already been donated to the campaign at the time of publication.
The project will be the first deep coal mine in the UK for 30 years. The developer, West Cumbria Mining, has been planning it since 2014 to supply the UK and European steel-making industry.
It says that the coal it wants to extract has specific properties that make it ideal coking coal, meaning it can be sold for a “considerably higher price” than thermal coal.
The company argues that industry will benefit from having a national supply of coal rather than import it, primarily from the US.
Cumbria County Council first approved the Woodhouse Colliery in March 2019, and permitted a revised application in October 2019.
But campaigners and a group of energy experts including professors Paul Ekins and Michael Grubb from University College London have urged the government to “call in” the decision, meaning that it would make the final call on the application rather than the council.
Professor Lars Nilsson, from Lund University in Sweden, is the lead author on industry in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th assessment report. He has also supported the campaign.
The planning application is of critical national importance, and should be decided at national level, they said.
One of the central arguments in the case is over the demand for coal for steelmaking, given that the industry is making moves to reduce the use of fossil fuels in its processes, which are currently responsible for seven percent of global emissions.
A number of pilot projects are being developed, such as one in Sweden, where steelmaker SSAB, mining and processing company LKAB and Vattenfall have a joint project called Hybrit, to produce fossil-free steel using hydrogen technology.
Opinions differ as to when this work will cause demand for coking coal to fall. A report by analysts Wood Mackenzie for West Cumbria Mining said that global coking coal demand is forecast to remain broadly stable between 2020 and 2050.
However, evidence provided to SLACC by the Materials Processing Institute, the UK’s innovation centre for the steel and metals industry, states that the demand for metallurgical coal in the UK and Europe is expected to decline considerably from 2030 onwards, as a result of actions being taken by producers to invest in new technologies.
The council has responded by permitting the mine till 2049, rather than 2070, the date West Cumbria Mining had applied for.
Greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions are also an issue. The mine’s opponents claim that burning coal from the mine will emit nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year for 30 years, she said.
West Cumbria Mining however, says that emissions from the use of the coal will not alter the net GHG emissions from steel-making installations in the UK or Europe since it is regulated under the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS), which caps the overall level of emissions from industries under its remit.
Last week, the UK Government announced that it would not get involved in deciding the planning application. Housing and local communities secretary Robert Jenrick said that the government’s call in policy should only be used “very selectively”, and that planning decisions should be made at the local level wherever possible.
The decision provoked a furious backlash from local and national campaigners. “We are extremely disappointed, but not surprised, that Robert Jenrick is insisting that West Cumbria Mining's plan to extract nearly three million tonnes of coal a year is not considered to be of national importance, and can be simply a local decision,” said Maggie Mason, from SLACC.
Friends of the Earth coal campaigner Tony Bosworth said that the decision showed “jaw-dropping inconsistency”. Last year, Jenrick called in and rejected a proposal for an opencast mine at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, saying there was “limited objective evidence that the demand for coal for industrial purposes will remain at current levels beyond the very short term”.
And last month, the government said it would no longer support fossil fuel projects overseas, Bosworth pointed out. “Allowing coal to be extracted from this proposed mine for over a quarter of a century completely undermines the government’s credibility on the climate crisis – especially ahead of the crucial UN summit later this year, which the UK is hosting,” he said.
Doug Parr, Greenpeace's UK policy director, said that a new coal mine should not be granted permission “in no way, shape or form. How can the government expect to claim global leadership as it hosts international climate talks later this year after giving this the green light?”
He acknowledged that job creation was absolutely vital to communities, but they must be 21st century jobs, not those in declining industries.
Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said: “This really shows the true meaning of so called ‘net zero 2050’. These vague, insufficient targets long into the future basically mean nothing today”.
In a statement, West Cumbria Mining chief executive Mark Kirkbride said he was delighted. “When operational, the mine will supply metallurgical coal to the UK and international steel industry, deliver hundreds of well-paid local jobs and support a first-class supply chain across the county,” he said.
The company intends to begin site work later this year, he added.
If a judge grants SLACC permission for its judicial review, the organisation has estimated that it will need up to £50,000 to fund the case, but expects support from other organisations and their networks, including Friends of the Earth and Coal Action Network.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.