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Cumbria Coal Mine: ‘A Subterranean White Elephant’ in the Works

Stuart Spray reports on the reaction by politicians, environmental groups and climate activists to the Government’s go-ahead for the country’s first coal mine in 30 years

A protest at the proposed Whitehaven coal mine site, in West Cumbria, earlier this month. Photo: Stuart Spray

Cumbria Coal Mine‘A Subterranean White Elephant’ in the Works

Stuart Spray reports on the reaction by politicians, environmental groups and climate activists to the Government’s go-ahead for the country’s first coal mine in 30 years

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Environmental groups, politicians and climate activists across the UK and beyond have branded the Government’s decision to give the go-ahead to the country’s first coal mine in 30 years in Cumbria as another missed opportunity to lead by example and show the world that Britain is fully committed to its legal obligations to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In a statement, Stephen Trotter, chief executive of Cumbria Wildlife Trust, said: “In our view, this decision undermines the urgent need to tackle the climate emergency and put our precious natural environment into recovery. It will have significant and damaging impacts on the natural environment and wildlife, both in Cumbria and internationally.”

WWF UK described the decision to approve the new coal mine as “irresponsible” and “a betrayal of the Government’s promise to reach net zero by 2050”. “It will be fought every step of the way by those who care for our planet,” it added.

The ripple of dissent has even reached the shores of the US, with John Kerry – President Biden’s special envoy for climate – saying he was taking a “close interest in the mine” and has instructed his staff to provide “a better download on exactly what the emissions implications are going to be”. He said that “coal is not exactly the direction that the world is trying to move in”.

Writing in the Guardian, Green MP Caroline Lucas was less diplomatic, condemning the Cumbrian coal mine as a “climate crime against humanity”. 

Meanwhile, South Lakes Action on Climate Change and Friends of the Earth have both confirmed that they are preparing for legal challenges which, if successful, could result in the High Court ordering ministers to re-determine planning consent for the mine. 

A protest at the proposed Whitehaven coal mine site, in West Cumbria, earlier this month. Photo: Stuart Spray

When fully operational, West Cumbria Mining (WCM) predict that the mine will produce 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal each year for the European and UK steel industries.  

One of the areas likely to be challenged legally is the claim made by WCM in the planning application that the coal mining operation will be a carbon-neutral enterprise. But its calculations do not include greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coking coal which, according to the Climate Change Committee – the body tasked with advising the Government on tackling and preparing for climate change – is estimated at 400,000 tons a year

Another contentious issue that may call for further investigation is the promise of investment and new jobs for the local area. 

Trudy Harrison, Conservative MP for Copeland and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), says the private sector will invest £165 million in Copeland, creating 500 direct jobs – the majority of which will go to local people – and a further 1,500 indirectly; all contributing £1.8 billion to GDP in the first 10 years. 

But Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, told Byline Times that he doubts these claims are true.

“After all, since the proposal for the mine was originally made, it has turned out that there is UK demand for only 13% of its coal and it sounds like neither British Steel nor Tata are planning to buy coal from the mine – in part because it is the wrong sort of coal, having a sulphur content that is too high,” he said. “Meanwhile as electric furnaces become increasingly commonplace and major steel customers will not buy steel made using fossil fuels, the business case is desperately weak.” 

He believes that investing in new nuclear in Sellafield or tidal and marine energy on the Cumbrian coast would create “real investment” and jobs that would last. “The coal mine, sadly, will be a subterranean white elephant,” he added. 

Speaking in Whitehaven at what is expected to be the first of many demonstrations over the coming months, Estelle Worthington, Friends of the Earth’s north-west regional campaigner, agreed that the Government should be investing more in green jobs. 

“There are so many other ways we could be creating the jobs that West Cumbria needs,” she told Byline Times. “Renewables and home energy efficiency would bring peoples [energy] bills down and create that secure employment that’s need for the future.” 

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Thomas Perrett

She highlighted a recent Local Government Association report that found that as many as 6,000 new jobs could be created as the local area made the transition to a green economy. 

“There is real question mark over that the future market for this coal,” she said. “British and European steel makers are quickly adopting green technology. That’s the future. This mine risks becoming a stranded assets and being redundant before it even opens.” 

Climate jobs activist from the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, Hazel Graham, claims that the Government and WCM are trying to create a “false divide” between the jobs for today’s workers and future generations’ need to have a liveable planet. 

“It’s not a case of ‘jobs versus the climate’. Its not a case of ‘coal jobs or no jobs’,” She told this newspaper. “We don’t need short-term jobs in a coal mine, we need long-term, unionised climate jobs which are fit for the future.”

Ms Graham is adamant that the coal mine will be halted in the same way as Lancashire’s Preston New Road fracking site was stopped. “The workers movement and the climate movement are absolutely  unstoppable when they get together,” she said. “We are going to fight this and were going to build and demand a sustainable future. We are going to stop this coal mine and build something else in its place.”

The Government claims that 68,000 green jobs have been created since the publication of Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November 2020.

The Green Jobs Delivery Group, set up by BEIS in May, has pledged to support the delivery of up to 480,000 skilled green jobs by 2030. 

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