A new frontier for UK coal?

It had seemed like coal was on the way out in Britain, but a proposed new coal mine in West Cumbria could jeopardize that. Daniel Therkelsen of Coal Action Network looks at how plans for the mine made it this far and how local people are stepping up to fight it.

A child demonstrates against the mining industry's claims that the West Cumbria Mine (and others) are carbon neutral. Credit: Coal Action Network

Last year the UK government announced its intention to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2024 and three opencast coal applications were rejected.

It was about time. According to the UN, governments and corporations collectively plan to extract at least twice the amount of fossil fuels they can burn without rising above 1.5°C of warming by 2030.

As Britain grapples with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, it should be a moment to rebuild a greener, fairer economy, particularly as it prepares to host both the G7 and COP26 international meetings in 2021.

But, a proposed new deep coal mine in West Cumbria, North-West England – the UK’s first in decades – is a step backwards. If it goes ahead, the mine will open in 2022 and commit the UK to extracting 2.78 million tonnes of coal annually until 2049.

Local people know what’s at stake for the local environment, communities, and global climate and have been tirelessly campaigning against the proposed mine. It seems like this pressure could be working; on 9 February Cumbria County Council announced that it was going to reconsider planning permission for the mine.

West Cumbria Mining – the Australian company behind the plans – had been able to hustle their application through approval by Cumbria County Council on the back of several false arguments. Exposing these is vital if the UK is to reach its legally-binding 2050 net-zero emissions target.

Delivered from the glib mouths of industry interests, and increasingly politicians, the idea of carbon-neutral coal provides a neatly packaged and dangerous illusion that we can continue business as normal

How to win planning permission for a UK coal mine

Proponents of the planning application for the mine claim it would produce the coking coal needed for the British steel industry – ‘British coal for British steel’. But, in fact, West Cumbria Mining admits that only up to 15 per cent of the coal they extract will be used in the UK, and even that is uncertain as there are no binding purchase agreements from any UK steelworks. The only alternative, the company says, is that the British steel industry simply continues importing coking coal from mines around the world, with the associated transport emissions on top.

‘Coking coal’ is a carbon-dense type of coal widely used to produce steel, and more expensive than the ‘thermal coal’ used in power stations to generate electricity. With the phase-out of thermal coal for power stations, coking coal for British steel production is the new frontier of coal demand in the UK. Globally, the steel industry uses 1 billion tonnes of coking coal to produce 1.7 billion tonnes of steel, 15 million tonnes of which is consumed in the UK.

‘Digging up coking coal in Cumbria risks slowing the transition to low carbon steel manufacture,’ says local resident Ali Ross. ‘West Cumbria does need jobs but they should be green and sustainable jobs, not climate destroying fossil fuel jobs... we just need the right training and investment.’

The idea that opening new coking coal mines in the UK saves transport emissions on imported coal is the basis of West Cumbria Mining’s incredulous claim that a mine extracting 2.78 million tonnes of coal annually would be carbon neutral, or even carbon negative. It had been important to convince Cumbria County Councillors of this claim as it’s been a legal requirement since 2019, that any coal mine approved in the UK must either be of ‘acceptable environmental impact’, or the benefits of a coal mine must outweigh its likely impacts. Delivered from the glib mouths of industry interests, and increasingly politicians, the idea of carbon neutral coal provides a neatly packaged and dangerous illusion that we can continue business as normal.

For the proposed West Cumbria coal mine to be carbon neutral, the coal extracted would need to be cancelled out by a similar quantity of coal consequently unmined elsewhere in the world. The unmined coal would supposedly stay in the ground because it’s no longer needed by the portion of the British steel industry that would source coal from the new West Cumbria mine instead. The answer is clearly not to continue importing coal from mines abroad. To do this would be continuing a colonial legacy of outsourcing the localized destruction of ecosystems and communities to regions with typically fewer safeguards and less recourse to justice.

However, to claim that opening new coal mines in the UK reduces coal mining abroad, and the associated transport emissions, is deeply misleading in how both coal mines and the steel industry operate. If a steel company in the UK were to switch its supply of coking coal from a mine abroad to a mine in the UK, the international coal trader that was supplying the UK steel company would simply find another buyer and would not reduce the coal they purchase by an equivalent amount. The coal traders and mines will always seek alternative markets before reducing supply, lowering the price to create demand until it becomes unprofitable to operate. Economics professor Paul Ekins points out that if more coking coal was available, and at a cheaper price, it would result in increased steel production use more coking coal, ultimately resulting in greater local and global harm to humans, animals and the climate.

Lower prices would also reduce the profit motive for the steel industry to invest in developing alternatives to relying on coking coal, such as: improving rates of scrap steel recycling (currently highest for cars at 90 per cent and lowest for household appliances at 50 per cent), and improving upon the development of technical innovations (e.g. hydrogen techniques) to reduce and replace coking coal. It should be noted though, the potential carbon savings in the steel industry, through improvements in scrap steel recycling and technologies, will likely be overshadowed by the forecasted growth in the steel industry.

The reality is that the emissions associated with transporting coal long distances are insignificant compared to the increased carbon released from the consequences of putting more coal on the market.

How to stop an approved coal mine

In Cumbria, two local groups: Radiation Free Lakeland (RAFL) and South Lakes Action on Climate Change Towards Transition (SLACCtt), have worked with experts to dispute a range of claims in West Cumbria Mining’s planning application. Despite the strength of local feeling on the issue in October 2020, 12 Councillors voted to accept the application, three were against, and two abstained. In January 2021, another blow was delivered when the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, ignored the national and global implications of the mine, indicating that there will be no public inquiry held on this decision. An inquiry like this has stopped mines in the past: in September 2020, permission was withdrawn for an opencast coal mine in Druridge Bay, in the Northeast England, after a public inquiry.

Then, this month, the Council did a U-turn and said it was going to reconsider the planning application in the light of the government’s carbon budgets. Despite this rethink, it’s not over yet for the mine and its opponents plan to keep up the pressure until it is. The risks are just too high for local resident Jill Perry: ‘We have suffered from catastrophic flooding too often, most memorably in 2009 and 2015 – we are at risk from climate change just like everyone else. West Cumbrians care about the future of our children and the planet, just like all people do. Give us sustainable jobs, not jobs that wreck the planet.’

SLACCtt is crowdfunding for legal fees in case they have to resort to challenging the legality of the coal mine through a judicial review. Unless the council does go back on its planning decision, they are likely to need legal guidance and representation to have the best chance of successfully preventing the mine going ahead. If these avenues are unsuccessful, the only option remaining to oppose the mine may be direct action tactics such blockading and occupying the site to delay it, or make it financially unfeasible to begin. UK campaigners have been successful in stopping mines in the past and they are determined to do it again.

Follow SLACCtt on Twitter and Facebook to stay up-to-date on their campaign. Follow Coal Action Network on Twitter and Facebook to find out more and get involved with action against coal.