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Environmentalists decry UK approval of first new coal mine in 30 years

The British government has approved a controversial coal mine in northern England, in an apparent bid to soothe factional dissent in parliament and maintain support in crucial swing seats. But the reaction from environmentalists has been fierce.

(CN) — The United Kingdom’s government approved the first new coal mine to be built in England in three decades this week, amid consternation from environmental campaigners.

The proposed 165 million pound ($202 million) Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbira was initially approved in 2019 by the local council, which cited the need for jobs in the economically deprived region of northern England. But the national government intervened in 2021 because the mine was undermining Britain’s climate reputation as it prepared to host the United Nations climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow.

However, on Wednesday government minister Michael Gove told Parliament that he was satisfied the mine could go ahead, stating that “the proposed mine is likely to be much better placed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions than comparative mining operations around the world” and approval was in keeping with the government’s “commitment to not only jobs, but the environment.”

The U.K. was historically a coal superpower, with almost 3,000 mines, or collieries, and 1.1 million miners powering the Industrial Revolution at its peak. The closure of coal mines from the 1980s onwards marked a major turning point in British society, and many communities across the country remain fractured by the transformation. The last functioning deep coal mine in the country closed in 2015. The last time a coal mine was approved was 1991.

In recent years the U.K. has acted fast to phase out coal from its energy production in line with climate commitments. Coal generated just 1.7% of the country’s electricity in 2020, down from 30% just six year earlier.

However, the new mine is not set to provide coal for general consumption – instead the government argues it is needed for domestic steel production, stating that without the development the coal “would otherwise need to be imported.”

However, contradicting the government’s claim are British steel makers who do not appear to be interested in the new coking coal, with the U.K.’s two major producers indicating it is not suitable for their production.

British Steel suggested that the sulfur content of the coal is likely to be too high for its operations. The firm’s former CEO Ron Deelan responded to the decision by stating that “this is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry, which is not waiting for more coal as there is enough on the free market available.” Meanwhile, rival Tata Steel is set to begin the process of closing its blast furnaces and transitioning to hydrogen-powered generation.

As such, the U.K.’s official Committee on Climate Change has said that 85% of the coking coal is likely to be produced for export to Europe – a claimed backed up by some senior Conservative members of Parliament. With steel makers across Europe also switching to hydrogen-based methods of production, the market for coking coal has an uncertain future in the continent.

Lord Deben, chair of the independent climate committee, has described the move as “absolutely indefensible," stating it “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the U.K.’s climate priorities. The U.K.’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by this decision.”

The British government has a legal obligation to ensure the country is generating net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The government claims the coal mine is consistent with the U.K.’s climate commitments because it will close in 2049.

But the decision has already dealt another blow to the country’s environmental credentials. Britain’s focus on climate began to be questioned in October when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared he would not attend COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, last month, before ultimately bowing to international pressure and making an appearance.

The ruling Conservative Party is split over the net-zero agenda, with a number of climate sceptic MPs forming a parliamentary faction known as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. They are seeking to pressure the government to move away from its existing environmental commitments.

A rival group of MPs, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and COP26 President Alok Sharma, are pushing for a more ambitious agenda on climate. Both groups are close to having the numbers sufficient to overturn Sunak’s parliamentary majority, leaving him walking a tightrope on climate issues.

It is reported that the coal mine’s approval is essentially compensation for climate sceptic MPs who are opposed to another decision made by the government this week: the relaxing of an effective ban on "onshore" wind farms. Construction of land-based wind turbines in England was halted in 2012, after the government tightened planning restrictions to prevent their approval on the basis that the turbines were not aesthetically pleasing.

However, the de facto ban now faces overwhelming public opposition during an energy price crisis, as onshore wind has become the cheapest form of energy generation in the country. The restrictions are also inconsistent with the U.K.’s push to become energy independent in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The suggestion that the coal mine approval is part of a backroom deal to relax wind power restrictions has sparked anger among opposition parties, who are firmly opposed the to new mine. The Labour Party’s climate spokesperson, Ed Miliband, said approving the project was “like celebrating the opening of a Betamax factory,” stating that it makes the U.K. “a laughing stock when it comes to us trying to talk to other countries like China about how they reduce their carbon emissions.”

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas said the government was backing a “climate-busting, backward-looking, business-wrecking, stranded asset coal mine. This mine is a climate crime against humanity,” she added “and such a reckless desire to dig up our dirty fossil fuel past will be challenged every step of the way.”

Indeed, the decision is likely to trigger a series of detailed and arduous court hearings, which are set to delay construction ever further. And that doesn’t account for the impact of widespread protests. Exploratory drilling for shale gas in England was doggedly opposed by environmental campaigners for more than a decade. Activist disruption to the drilling sites made the industry virtually unviable and played a critical role in its demise. Construction of the new mine is all but certain to face similar levels of physical opposition, with protests at the site already planned for Friday.

The government may be hoping that one area in which the move will command general approval is in Cumbria itself. The area has a proud mining heritage along with some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. In the last general election in 2019, the Conservative Party won a number of seats in the region that had long been held by rivals Labour, on the back of a promise to invest in left-behind, post-industrial parts of the country. With the Conservatives now tanking in the polls, following through on their electoral promises has become ever more important in such crucial swing seats.

But even if the coal mine is a vote winner in north west England, it creates a large number of new difficulties for the government elsewhere, with the battle over its construction set to rage on for years to come.

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