A new UK coal mine - in the middle of a climate crisis?
Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, producing the most CO2 per tonne burned amongst all the fossil fuels, but still generates around a third of electricity worldwide. At COP26 UK negotiators urged agreement on a global coal phase out, having almost eliminated coal power generation in the UK in the past decade.
But in December 2022, after more than three years of debate, communities minister Michael Gove approved the Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria, which would be the first new UK deep coal mine in 30 years. This caused global anger at the hypocrisy on display.
The mine will produce coking coal for use in steelworks. But British (and European) steelworks will be largely unable to use Whitehaven coal as it is too high in sulphur. About 83% of the coal produced from the mine would be for export.
What mental gymnastics were needed to approve this project during a climate crisis? Grounds for approval included:
'Emissions from the coal being burned aren’t relevant to the decision' Gove accepts that these would amount to 220 million tonnes C02 equivalent over the lifetime of the mine, but denies that these are relevant to the planning decision.
'Even if emissions from coal use were relevant, it wouldn’t create any overall increase in emissions' This is not just a morally dubious argument - ‘if we don’t do it, someone else will’ - but also hard to justify factually.
'Demand for coking coal will continue in the UK and Europe’s steelworks until 2040 at least' But UK steelmakers are currenty seeking government support to transition to electric arc furnace steel production, with European steel makers already moving towards greener production. Significantly, Gove's forecast is based on the UK failing to meet its legally-binding climate targets.
Both South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) and Friends of the Earth are challenging the decision in the courts.
Flawed grounds of Michael Gove's approval (Coal Action Network)
Presentation slides (Jan 2023) by Maggie Mason of SLACC.
The Potential for Green Jobs in Cumbria by Cumbria Action for Sustainability