Government accused of ‘environmental vandalism’ over go-ahead for new coal mine

The Government has been accused of “environmental vandalism” over the go-ahead for a new coal mine, as experts question the signals the move sends.

The underground mine on the edge of Whitehaven in Cumbria, the first of its kind for 30 years, was approved by the Government following a series of delays.

It is expected to extract nearly 2.8 million tonnes of coal per year for use in steel making, rather than power generation, and backers say the scheme will create around 500 jobs for the local area.

But opponents warn it will create more greenhouse gas emissions and say is hypocritical in the wake of UK efforts on the international stage to show climate leadership and urge the world to give up on coal.

They want to see investment in green jobs.

Business and engineering experts have questioned the investment in an “1850s technology” to supply coal for steel manufacture as the sector looks to shift to cleaner production methods.

And they warned it sent the wrong signal to industry about climate commitments to cutting emissions to zero overall – known as net zero – by 2050.

Downing Street
Communities secretary Michael Gove (James Manning/PA)

Communities Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged the scheme may be subject to a legal challenge but insisted it would be a net zero emissions project and claimed it “would to some extent support the transition to net zero”.

Mr Gove told the Commons that “all the scenarios and forecasts for the future use of coking coal” put before the public enquiry into the application demonstrated a continued demand for the product for decades to come.

He also said the UK was “almost wholly dependent upon imports of coking coal” to meet its steel manufacturing needs.

But shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy accused the Tories of being the party of “environmental vandalism”, warning its own climate advisers have said the mine is projected to increase emissions by 0.4 million tonnes a year.

Labour Party Conference 2022
Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy (Peter Byrne/PA)

She also said the big two steel producers Tata and British Steel are phasing out the coal in favour of lower carbon production methods, so that by the mid-2030s “at best the UK will use less than 10% of the output of the mine”, while global demand for it was projected to fall off a cliff by 88% by 2050.

She said the people of Cumbria deserved a long-term future with lasting, well-paid jobs but the Government had recently rejected a plan to bring new nuclear to Cumbria, creating 10,000 jobs.

She added the decision “flies in the face of Britain’s net zero objectives”, telling MPs: “The Tories were once the party of conservation, now they are the party of environmental vandalism”.

Scientists and engineers have also pointed to warnings from UK steel companies that they will not be able to use the coal because of its sulphur content, which will mean most of it is exported.

And a number of schemes around the world, including in Europe, are investing in new alternatives to coal use for making steel to cut emissions.

Former government chief scientist, and chair of the independent Climate Crisis Advisory Group Sir David King, labelled the decision as an “incomprehensible act of self-harm”.

He said: “Worldwide there should be no new venture into coal, oil or gas recovery.

“This action by a leading developed economy sets exactly the wrong example to the rest of the world.

“Our only real form of influence on the climate crisis in the world is seriously jettisoned by this action.”

Sam Fankhauser,  from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford said the decision sends “completely the wrong message” about Britain’s commitment to cut its emissions net zero by 2050 to tackle climate change.

“It looks hypocritical in the eyes of low-income countries, whose own fossil fuel ambitions we have repeatedly criticised,” he said.

Prof Stuart Haszeldine, from the School of GeoSciences at University Edinburgh, said: “Opening a coal mine in Cumbria is investing in 1850s technology, and does not look forward to the 2030s low carbon local energy future.

“We have studied the Cumbria coals and it’s clear that these are very high in sulphur and are not wanted by either of the two UK iron and steel makers.”

“Steel making in Europe is rapidly changing to use hydrogen, not coal.

“Most, and maybe all, of this coking coal will be exported outside of Europe to escape environmental constraints on its use. England will become a global dirty fuel supplier.”

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an alliance of business, academics and civil society supporting a sustainable economy, said the decision was “deeply disappointing from an industrial strategy, market signal, environmental and diplomatic perspective”.

He said: “Several steel makers in the UK and globally are now making plans to move away from coal and instead manufacture green steel through cleaner technologies such as electric arc furnaces powered by renewable energy or through hydrogen direct reduction.

“Those are the technologies and globally relevant supply chains that the UK should seek to gain a competitive advantage in and where new and secure jobs can be created across the country and for the long-term.”

He added the move came a year after the UK Government led a campaign to encourage businesses and investors to accelerate their emissions reductions.

“Giving the go-ahead to a new open coal mine in the UK a year later sends a very confusing signal to the business and investment community and is not at all consistent with the actions of a government seeking to de-risk and accelerate investment flows towards low carbon technologies to hit net zero,” he warned.