If given the green light, the new mine will extract up to 2.78 million tonnes of coal a year until the year 2049, from beneath the Cumbrian countryside at a site just west of the fells of the Lake District and just east of the St Bees’ Head Heritage Coast.
The coking coal will be used for the steel industry, with around 85 per cent of it exported to other countries.
But with just two months to go until the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, at which Boris Johnson is seeking to cast the UK as a “climate leader”, the inquiry threatens to undermine the government’s credibility on tackling the climate emergency.
The inquiry, held by the planning inspectorate and taking place online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is expected to last a month and will ultimately make a recommendation to the communities secretary Robert Jenrick.
However, a final decision is not expected until Spring 2022 – long after the climate summit.
While Mr Johnson has repeatedly called for other countries to “consign coal to history” ahead of Cop26, US climate envoy John Kerry explicitly warned the UK government earlier this year that coal is the “dirtiest fuel in the world”, amid international concern over the proposed mine.
Since the application for the coal mine was first submitted in 2017, there has been considerable opposition to the scheme, nonetheless in 2019, Cumbria Council approved the plans for the first time.
Despite the decision prompting outrage, the government said it would not intervene, saying such decisions “are generally best determined locally, by local councils that know their own area best, rather than by central government”.
Environmental campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpece described the government’s stance as “jaw dropping”, and urged Mr Jenrick to “call-in” the decision.
And in February 2021 the Climate Change Committee said that the government’s stance gave a “negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities”.
Following these assessments, Cumbria County Council said it would reconsider the planning application.
This was followed by a decision in March this year from the government to finally “call-in” the decision, thereby taking the decision out of Cumbria County Council’s hands and triggering the public inquiry.
At the time, a statement announcing the decision sent on behalf of Robert Jenrick said controversy around the plan “has increased” and that the minister “considers that this application raises planning issues of more than local importance”.
The inquiry will hear evidence from groups supporting and opposing the proposed mine.
The local MP, Trudy Harrison, a Conservative, is among those supporting the mine, and has argued the ability to produce coking coal for steel is more environmentally friendly than importing it.
But in the neighbouring consistency, fellow Conservative MP Neil Hudson has withdrawn his support for the mine, arguing in his submission to the inquiry that the government should take into account the worsening extreme weather due to the climate crisis, and the latest warnings from the UN’s IPCC report, ahead of the Cop26 summit.
Friends of the Earth is one of the main groups opposing the development.
Climate campaigner at the charity, Tony Bosworth, told The Independent: “This proposed new coal mine is a huge test of the UK government’s environmental credibility, and its grasp of the magnitude of the climate crisis we face.
“With the world literally burning, we can’t afford to fan the flames by allowing yet more fossil fuel extraction.
“A rapid transition to a zero carbon economy is urgently needed, and that means saying no to new coal, gas and oil.”