The first coal mine in Britain for 30 years has been given the go-ahead by the government, prompting a storm of protest from green groups and MPs across the political spectrum
Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, granted approval for the mine in Whitehaven in Cumbria on Wednesday evening in a controversial decision that has been delayed several times.
The £165mn mine, which will provide coking coal for use in the steel industry rather than for burning in power stations, is expected to employ 500 people.
The government said the approval had been recommended by the independent planning inspector. “This coal will be used for the production of steel and would otherwise need to be imported,” it said, adding: “The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”
The project faces huge opposition from environmentalists and runs counter to the UK government’s positioning in recent years as a leader in efforts to phase out the use of fossil fuels, especially coal because of its high carbon emissions.
Caroline Lucas, the country’s only Green party MP, said the government had backed a “climate-busting, backward-looking, stranded asset coal mine” which amounted to a “climate crime against humanity”.
Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a Cumbria MP, said the decision was “ridiculous and dreadful” and a “pathetic failure of leadership”.
The project was originally approved by Cumbria county council in 2019 but was then called in by the government, which began a public inquiry in September 2021.
Boris Johnson voiced concerns about the project last year, while he was prime minister, saying he was “not in favour of more coal”. But both local Conservative MPs, Mark Jenkinson and Trudy Harrison, have backed the mine.
Harrison, MP for Copeland, has argued that the steel industry would need coking coal from somewhere and therefore it made no sense to “turn a blind eye and offshore our emissions”.
Alok Sharma, the Tory MP who was chair of the COP26 climate summit, has warned that the project would make it harder for the UK to hit its legally-binding “carbon budgets” — under which emissions are reduced gradually towards the 2050 net zero target.
“Opening a new coal mine will not only be a backward step for UK climate action but also damage the UK’s hard-won international reputation,” he recently argued.
Yet the 419-page decision letter published on Wednesday night said Gove had concluded that “the proposed development would have an overall neutral effect on climate change.” Factors in favour of the proposal included the economic benefits and the provision of an “indigenous source of supply” for the steel industry.
But Ron Deelan, former chief executive of British Steel, said the approval was “completely unnecessary” given there was enough coal available on the free market. “The British steel industry needs green investment in electric arc furnaces and hydrogen,” he said.
The mine will produce 3mn tonnes of metallurgical coal per year when fully developed, which is about 18 per cent of the UK’s annual consumption. The approval was granted on the condition that the underground conveyor belt, which moves coal from the mine to the train, must be tunnelled through the earth rather than laid in a trench.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth called the decision “appalling.” Dr Ruth Balogh, co-ordinator of the group’s West Cumbria branch, said: “This short-sighted decision is bad news for the climate and the region’s long-term wellbeing,” adding: “West Cumbria needs sustainable green jobs for the future — not a dirty coal mine.”
West Cumbria Mining, the company which has been working on the project for eight years, said it would release a statement shortly.