‘Incomprehensible act of self-harm’: Experts deride government go-ahead for new coal mine

The decision to allow a controversial mine to be built in Cumbria has generated enormous anger and raised further concerns about the ability of the government to recalibrate industrial investment amid the climate emergency.

Opposition politicians, scientists, local people, environment campaigners and even the government’s own advisors have condemned the decision to give the Woodhouse Colliery the go-ahead, a move they say will cause massive environmental damage and undermine any international leadership the UK has previously shown on tackling the worsening climate crisis.

The undersea mine – the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years – is expected to produce coking coal for export to foreign steel companies until 2049, a year before the UK is legally bound to reach net zero.

During this period the mine is forecast to increase UK greenhouse gas emissions by 0.4 million tonnes a year, the equivalent of an extra 200,000 cars on the road.

The company behind the proposed mine, West Cumbria Mining, has said it expects 530 jobs to be created, however, "no firm commitment" has been made on this.

The approval was branded "an incomprehensible act of self-harm" by the former chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir David King, while Conservative former minister Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, said it would undermine UK efforts to reach net zero and “diminish” the country’s global influence on carbon.

Friends of the Earth said it was “a misguided and deeply damaging mistake that flies in the face of all the evidence” on addressing the climate crisis, and Greenpeace said the UK government "risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership".

Greenpeace’s UK policy director Doug Parr said: "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."

"How can we possibly expect other countries to rein in fossil fuel extraction when we’re building new coal mines here?"

Marianne Birkby, founder of local campaign group Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole, told The Independent she was “gutted … on steroids” when she heard the news.

She said she was concerned the coal mine could cause earthquakes. Small quakes - up to magnitude 3 on the Richter scale - used to be relatively common as a result of coal mining in the United Kingdom.

“If this coal mine does go ahead, what needs to happen is exactly the same as for fracking, there needs to be a traffic light system,” she said, referring to a system that measures seismicity and informs shale gas firms when they have to stop drilling.

Richard Davies, a geologist at Newcastle University, said at least 21 per cent of the earthquakes in the UK since the 1970s have been caused by coal mining but have all been “small” with the biggest measuring about 3 on the Richter Scale.

That is “feelable but doesn’t do any damage,” he added.

Ruth Balogh, the coordinator for the West Cumbria and North Lakes chapter of the Friends of the Earth’s group, described the decision as a “disaster” that will pump millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“This will affect everybody, it’s not just a question of what happens in Whitehaven,” she told The Independent.

“It’s such a backwards step, we should be looking forward … this government has lost its way.”

Dr Balogh said there were many people in West Cumbria who were against the mine. “I take issue with West Cumbrians who say that everybody is hanging out the flags, they’re not,” she said, adding that Friends of the Earth lawyers were now studying the details of the decision to approve the mine “very closely”.

Oxfam’s climate change policy advisor, Lyndsay Walsh, said the decision "is a complete betrayal of the government’s commitment to limit global warming to 1.5C".

“Increasing production of the dirtiest fossil fuel as the escalating climate emergency pushes millions of people deeper into hunger and poverty cannot be justified," she said.

The wave of criticism comes after senior figures in the steel industry in the UK said they did not require the coking coal from the mine in any case – even after moving away from Russian-produced coal following the invasion of Ukraine.

The chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute research centre said only Tata Steel, which is already ending its purchase of Russian coal, would buy it and would not want much.

British Steel, operators of a Scunthorpe steel plant, have said the sulphur content of the coal would be "an issue" and said they would not be able to use it even if it was extracted.

Academics have also questioned the economic case for the mine, stating “there is no evidence that coal extracted from a mine at Whitehaven would reduce the amount of coal extracted overseas”.

Prof Peter Newell, climate expert and professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, said: “The approval of a new coal mine in the UK just weeks after Rishi Sunak was pledging at the climate summit in Egypt to lead the world in efforts to decarbonise the economy amounts to a total dereliction of duty.

"This is a mine that even the steel industry says it doesn’t need and which will do nothing to address the cost of living crisis. It is reckless in the extreme. There is no social, economic or environmental case for new coal in a climate emergency.”

Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said Rishi Sunak had been exposed as a “fossil fuel PM in a renewable age”, who had “given up on all pretence of climate leadership”.

Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay described the decision as a "disgrace" and said Mr Sunak’s government had "cynically delayed" it until the UK was no longer president of the UN’s Cop26 climate summit following Cop27 in Egypt.

"This government really is the pits," he said.

“England and Wales have huge natural advantages and the economic strength to harness renewable wind, wave and solar power. The government should be leading the world toward renewable forms of energy not encouraging it to move backwards.

“The government’s environmental credentials are in tatters. Around the world, countries are striving to tackle the climate crisis by closing coal mines, yet here the government is opening one."

Friends of the Earth said opponents of the mine would hold a protest against the decision at the site of the proposed mine on Saturday 10 December.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson told The Independent: “The secretary of state has 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. 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”.