Approving Britain’s first coal mine in 30 years will reap negligible economic benefits and cause significant environmental damage – but the decision was taken for reasons closer to home for the Tories, writes Thomas Perrett

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Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has approved the development of the first coal mine to be built in the UK for 30 years. The mine, to be built at the Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven in Cumbria, is estimated to produce around 2.8 million tonnes of coal a year and will create 500 new jobs in the region.

The controversial decision – which had initially been made last January by then Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick – was delayed three times following extensive opposition from environmental campaigners, NGOs and politicians, who argued that it called into question Britain’s climate credentials during the crucial COP26 UN climate summit, hosted in Glasgow last year. 

Indeed, despite claims that the mine – which will produce coking coal to be used in Britain’s steel industry – will have a lower carbon footprint than importing coal, campaigners have argued that the development of the mine will only imperil the country’s legally enshrined climate obligations.

Lord Deben, head of government advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC), has described the proposal as “utterly indefensible”, while Green MP Caroline Lucas has argued that “this Government has backed a climate-busting, backward-looking, business-wrecking, stranded asset coal mine”.

“This mine is a climate crime against humanity – and such a reckless desire to dig up our dirty fossil fuel past will be challenged every step of the way,” she added. 

The mine – which will produce an estimated 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year; the equivalent of an additional 200,000 cars on the road – directly contravenes the warnings of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last year, which advocated for “decommissioning and reduced utilisation of existing fossil fuel installations in the power sector as well as cancellation of new installations”. 

It also conflicts with the CCC’s own recommendations. The Government’s advisors have said that “UK ore-based steel-making be near zero emissions by 2035” and that “coking coal use in steel-making could be displaced completely by 2035, using a combination of hydrogen direct reduction and electric arc furnace technology”. The CCC has ruled out the domestic use of coking coal after 2035.

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Coking Coal No Longer Needed

The mine’s supporters defend it as a centrepiece in the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, intended to restore prosperity and sufficiency to previously neglected regions.

Conservative Mark Jenkinson, MP for Workington, recently told the Sun that “as Britain still needs coking coal for the foreseeable future to make our world-leading steel, it should come from here, not imported thousands of miles away – which will only increase our carbon footprint further”.

Yet its detractors dispute that local communities will see the benefits of the mine, as the coking coal industry is changing due to the adoption of ecologically sustainable production methods and the new demands of the steel industry.

Two major steel producers, British steel and Tata Steel, doubt that the coal produced by the mine will be compatible with their operations.

Former British steel executive Ron Deelan has said that “this is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry, which is not waiting for more coal as there is enough on the free market available” and that the “British steel industry needs green investment in electric arc furnaces and hydrogen to protect jobs and make the UK competitive”.

Moreover, 83% of the coal produced by the mine will likely be exported to markets where firms are keen to adopt environmentally sustainable production methods.

A report by environmental NGO Friends of the Earth earlier this year found that the mine would only send 13% of its coal to the UK market, where its high sulphur content would render it virtually unusable by British suppliers. 

According to the report – which claims that “the market for coking coal in the EU will decline significantly by the end of the decade” – West Cumbria Mining has said that its primary export market would be “northern, southern, western Europe and Turkey”, where steel manufacturers are rapidly making reinvestment decisions based on their own decarbonisation targets.

The EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ campaign, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, has led to steel manufacturers phasing out blast furnaces, 74% which will require reinvestment by 2030, with low-carbon technologies. 

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Assuaging Party Divisions

The development of the Cumbria mine is likely an attempt to assuage divisions within the Conservative Party following the Government’s decision to revoke its ban on the development of onshore wind power.

The decision had sparked controversy among Tory MPs opposed to stringent net zero targets, such as Sir John Hayes, who was one of several to sign an open letter claiming that increasing onshore wind capacity interfered with the country’s food security. 

Hayes, who has advised international energy company BB Trading Ltd – which trades more than 33 million metric tons of oil per year – since September 2018, has an extensive record of lobbying against the development of clean energy.

He has opposed the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and has compared climate change activism to “radical Islam”, writing that “radical Islam, Black Lives Matter and the Extinction Rebellion are cultural not economic movements which want to disown our collective past and so transform our very way of life and so dictate the future”.

This illustrates the extent of the ideological rift that net zero policies have generated within the Conservative Party. Powerful lobby groups and vested interests who have long criticised decarbonisation as costly and unworkable remain influential in ensuring party stability. 

The decision to approve the Cumbria coal mine will reap negligible economic benefits and cause significant environmental damage. This decision – which has been met with rightful scrutiny from environmental campaigners – appears to be an attempt to sacrifice the country’s legally binding net zero targets to alleviate internal party divisions, failing to meaningfully address the scale of the climate crisis. 

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