Government approves new coal mine despite warnings over climate impact

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Michael Gove has approved planning permission for a new coal mine despite warnings that the decision will undermine the government’s progress towards it own climate targets and that demand for coking coal is in decline.

The decision to approve the coal mine by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, announced this evening, followed two years of uncertainty after the local planning authority initially approved the plans in 2020.

Ministers greenlit the project in 2021 but the government later rescinded its approval for the mine as it prepared to take on the presidency of global climate talks ahead of the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

Today’s decision was originally due on or before July 7th, but has been delayed three times. The facility, near Whitehaven in Cumbria, will be the first deep coal mine in the UK for more than 30 years and West Cumbria Mining – the applicant – has said the site will mine up to 3.1 million tonnes of coal per year.

Conservative MP Alok Sharma, a former minister who led last year’s global COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on behalf of the UK, argued last week that opening the new mine would be a “backward step” in the fight against climate change.

A spokesperson for the department said: “The Secretary of State has agreed to plant 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 that would otherwise need to be imported. 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.”

West Cumbria Mining has claimed that the mine at Woodhouse Colliery will create at least 500 jobs, mostly for local people, but opponents have said that any economic benefit is outweighed by the damaging impact of the mine on the climate.

Estimates suggest that the mine will produce 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, increasing the UK’s emissions by the equivalent of putting 200,000 cars on the road and the vast majority of the coal produced will be for export.

Commenting on the decision, Labour’s Ed Miliband tweeted: “This decision is no solution to the energy crisis, it does not offer secure, long-term jobs, and it marks this government giving up on all pretence of climate leadership.

“Waving this mine through further cements Rishi Sunak as an out of date fossil fuel PM in a renewable age.”

Critics have also argued that the success of the mine in exporting produce is unlikely as most European steelmakers are turning away from the use of coal and adopting green methods such as electric arc furnaces and renewable energy.

Ministers have claimed that the mine does not contradict the aims of the UK’s climate legislation, which requires the the country to reach net zero emissions by 2050, because its operations will shut down by 2049.

COP26 resolved to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, an achievement the COP president Alok Sharma warned was “fragile”.

The International Energy Agency published a report last year, commissioned by the UK government, that found that no new fossil fuel development – of coal, oil, or gas – could take place if the world was to remain within the 1.5C limit.

Sophie Flinders, a data analyst at Common Wealth, told LabourList: “There is no clear reason why the government is going ahead with these plans now. We have just had one of the hottest summers in living memory and approving this coalmine will throw the UK further off course from the 1.5C degrees commitment made at COP26 just last year.

“The UK is the second highest greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emitter of the EU14 countries. By approving this coalmine, the Conservative government is not just backtracking against its own climate targets: it is also selling out future generations in the UK and globally, who will inherit a planet that is uninhabitable for many.

“The government needs to be bold and invest in renewables, owned and run by the public – not coal, a relic of a long past era.”

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