‘Deeply damaging mistake’: UK’s decision to approve a new coal mine criticized as misguided

Energy News

This image, taken in March 2021, shows the site where the new facility would be developed.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — Plans for a deep coal mine in the northwest of England were given the green light by the U.K. government, a decision that’s been welcomed by its backers but slammed by critics.

In a statement reacting to the news, the firm behind the development said it was “delighted with the decision.”

West Cumbria Mining said the Woodhouse Colliery, in the county of Cumbria, would supply “the critical steel industry with a high-quality metallurgical coal product.” According to the business, the project will provide roughly 500 direct jobs.  

The U.K. has a long association with coal mining, but the industry’s decline hit many communities hard and is an emotive subject. The reasons for the government’s decisions were outlined in an extensive document published online on Wednesday.

Among other things, it said Michael Gove, the secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, was “satisfied that there is currently a UK and European market for the coal … and that although there is no consensus on what future demand in the UK and Europe may be, it is highly likely that a global demand would remain.”

The approval for the Woodhouse Colliery was welcomed by Mike Starkie, the elected mayor of Copeland Borough Council in Cumbria. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s “The World Tonight” on Wednesday, Starkie, who is a member of the ruling Conservative Party, described himself as “absolutely thrilled.”

“I’ve been inundated with messages from across my community tonight, and we’ve got a community in celebration about one of the biggest positive economic impacts on our area in a generation,” he added. “This is fantastic news for West Cumbria and for our community.”

Starkie’s enthusiasm was not shared by all. “Phasing out coal use is the clearest requirement of the global effort towards Net Zero,” Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee, an independent body which advises the U.K. government, said.

“We condemn, therefore, the Secretary of State’s decision to consent a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, contrary to our previous advice,” Deben added.

He went on to state that the United Kingdom’s “hard-fought global influence on climate” had been “diminished by today’s decision.”

Alongside the CCC, other organizations were also critical of the development moving forward. “This is an appalling decision,” Tony Bosworth, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said.

“Approving this mine is a misguided and deeply damaging mistake that flies in the face of all the evidence,” he added. “The mine isn’t needed, will add to global climate emissions, and won’t replace Russian coal.”

Greenpeace UK’s Policy Director, Doug Parr, said the mine would “do absolutely nothing for the UK’s energy security since the coal it contains can only be used for steelmaking, not generating power, and more than 80% of it is earmarked for sale in Europe anyway.”

“There’s a technological revolution building in steel-making, but this approach could make the UK a backwater in the 21st-century clean tech race,” Parr said.

Elsewhere, Jen Carson, who is head of industry at the Climate Group, described the proposal to open the new coal mine as being “at odds with the steel sector, and the UK Government’s net zero pledge.”

While it was crucial to the planet’s industrialization and remains a hugely important source of electricity, coal has a substantial effect on the environment.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists a range of emissions from coal combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides.

Elsewhere, Greenpeace has described coal as “the dirtiest, most polluting way of producing energy.”

On the global stage, the U.K.’s plans to develop a new site linked to the mining of fossil fuels are at odds with high profile international voices such as Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary general.

“The only true path to energy security, stable power prices, prosperity and a livable planet lies in abandoning polluting fossil fuels — especially coal — and accelerating the renewables-based energy transition,” he said earlier this year.

In a statement sent to CNBC on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities said the secretary of state had “agreed to grant planning permission for a new metallurgical coal mine in Cumbria as recommended by the independent planning inspector.”

“This coal will be used for the production of steel and would otherwise need to be imported,” they added.

“It will not be used for power generation. The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”

“The reasons for the Secretary of State’s decision are set out in full in his published letter, alongside the report of the independent planning inspector who oversaw the inquiry into the proposal.”

CNBC also contacted West Cumbria Mining for comment, but had not received a response ahead of this story’s publication.

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