‘Reckless in the extreme’: Outrage as government poised to green-light UK’s first new coal mine for decades

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Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven, in 2021  (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven, in 2021 (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The UK government is said to be “on the cusp” of giving the go-ahead to a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria, sparking a furious response from concerned environmental groups and campaigners.

Under the proposals the Woodhouse colliery, near Whitehaven in Cumbria, will be the first new deep coal mine since the 1980s and will extract coking coal from beneath the Irish Sea, 85 per cent of which will be exported.

According to a report in the Sunday Telegraph, Michael Gove, the levelling-up, housing and communities secretary, could approve the contentious new mine as soon as next month.

The coking coal will be used by the steel industry, but critics have said it is unnecessary now that hydrogen and electricity-based technologies can be used to make steel.

The mine has already attracted international condemnation with Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry criticising the plans ahead of the Cop26 summit hosted by the UK last year, calling coal “the dirtiest fuel in the world”.

“Senior Conservative Party sources” told The Sunday Telegraph that Mr Gove is believed to be supportive of the plan to open the mine, and his decision will largely hinge on the recommendations set out by the Planning Inspectorate.

The mine was controversially given the green light by local councillors in October 2020, causing anger that the government had declined to “call in” such a major development with considerable emissions potential.

After furious opposition, the government pulled a hard U-turn and launched an inquiry to review plans for the £165m mine.

The government’s independent advisers, the Climate Change Committee, said the Woodhouse colliery “will increase global emissions and have an appreciable impact on legally binding carbon budgets”.

Though the government has until July to reach a verdict on the project, it appears a decision could now be imminent.

The move towards expanding UK coal production comes as the government has also committed to new drilling in the North Sea for oil and gas.

Campaigners have said the government is undermining Britain’s position as a world leader on addressing the global climate crisis.

Just this month, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, warned that governments must take much more radical action to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Launching the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he warned: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing production of fossil fuels.

“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, told The Independent that allowing the mine to go ahead meant Boris Johnson’s government was undermining a core message – to cut use of coal – agreed at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.

She said: “The plan to give the green light to a new coal mine in Cumbria is reckless in the extreme and shows a Tory government abandoning any pretence of leadership on the climate crisis. As Cop26 president, the government is urging other countries to take climate action, while back home it agrees to investment in the most polluting of all fossil fuels.

“We need to be investing in renewables and a nationwide home insulation programme to address the cost of living crisis and cut carbon emissions, not shovelling more money into coal.”

Tony Bosworth, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent the government must instead focus on helping to support growth in clean industries, to provide sustainable jobs to areas where they are needed.

He said: “Barely three weeks ago the UN secretary-general blasted countries investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure as truly dangerous radicals.

“And yet it’s rumoured the UK’s first open coal mine for 30 years is being seriously considered. Approving the Cumbrian coal mine would blow a huge hole in the government’s remaining climate credibility.

“Michael Gove must ensure that areas like west Cumbria, which have huge potential for long-term, sustainable employment in clean industries, are at the forefront of the investment in the green economy that we desperately need.”

It is likely the government will face a considerable backlash if the mine is given the green light. Last year polling by YouGov for the think tank Green Alliance showed minimal support for new coal mines. Just 14 per cent of people said they were positive about plans to expand the recovery of coal in the UK.

Roz Bulleid, deputy policy director at Green Alliance, told The Independent: “New coal mines are unpopular among the public and would fly in the face of the government’s credibility as Cop26 president.

“The steel industry across Europe is already moving to low-carbon production steel-making, which will cut demand for coal, and could make any new jobs created from this mine redundant in the near future.

“The best way to create good and sustainable jobs for communities is to support industries like the steel sector to decarbonise, not supporting a declining coal industry.”

The government’s Levelling Up department confirmed to The Independent it had received the report into the mine from the Planning Inspectorate, but a spokesperson said they were unable to comment on the reports that Mr Gove was ready to give the mine the go-ahead, as the report was for ministers alone to consider.

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