UK’s first new coal mine in 30 years gets green light in Cumbria

The UK will build its first new coal mine in three decades at Whitehaven in Cumbria, despite objections locally, across the UK and around the world.

Michael Gove, the leveling secretary, gave the green light to the project on Wednesday, paving the way for an estimated £165m investment that will create around 500 new jobs in the area and produce 2.8m tonnes of coal to coke per year, mainly for the steel industry.

The mine will also produce around 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, increasing UK emissions by the equivalent of putting 200,000 cars on the road.

The vast majority of coal produced will be for export, as most UK steelmakers have rejected the use of coal, which is high in sulfur and surplus to their needs.

Where these exports will go is uncertain as most European steelmakers are moving away from using coal and adopting green methods such as electric arc furnaces and renewables.

The government said the mine was possible under UK climate legislation, which requires the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, as operations will be shut down by 2049.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, faced objections from Green MPs within his party. The decision will be welcomed by the conservative right for whom the mine has become a talisman.

Mine backers have been trying to get the project off the ground since 2014. It won local approval in 2020 and was greenlit by ministers in 2021. But over the past two years the project has been plagued with planning delays as the government rescinded its approval. as he prepares to take over the presidency of the global climate talks ahead of the UN Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

The UK government handed over its presidency of the UN climate talks last month to Egypt, a year after the widely hailed COP26 decided to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C in above pre-industrial levels, an achievement Cop chairman Alok Sharma warned was “fragile”.

A report by the International Energy Agency last year, commissioned by the UK government when it was Cop president, found that no new fossil fuel developments – coal, oil or gas – could take place if the world were to stay within the 1.5°C limit.

Sharma told the Observer last weekend that he was strongly opposed to the mine. He said: “Over the past three years the UK has sought to persuade other countries to make coal history as we fight to limit global warming to 1.5C and the coal is the dirtiest source of energy.

“A decision to open a new coal mine would completely send the wrong message and be an against his side. This proposed new mine will have no impact on reducing energy bills or ensuring our energy security.

MP Philip Dunne, chairman of the environmental audit committee, said: ‘Coal is the dirtiest source of energy and is not in line with the government’s net zero ambitions. It is not obvious to say that having a coal mine on our doorstep producing coking coal for steelmaking will reduce steelmakers’ demand for imported coal.

“On the contrary, when our committee heard from steelworkers earlier this year, they argued that they had survived long enough without domestic coking coal in the UK and that any purchase of coking coal from a site potential in Cumbria would be a business decision.”

Nicholas Stern, the renowned economist who has worked on climate, development and public policy, said the mine would be detrimental to the UK and the world.

“Opening a coal mine in the UK now is a big mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political,” Lord Stern said. “Economically, it’s investing in the technologies of the last century, not in this one, and that’s not the right path to growth. Socially, he seeks jobs in dying industries, creating future job insecurity.

“Environmentally, it adds to global supply and thus coal consumption and releases greenhouse gases when there is an urgent need to reduce them. And politically, it undermines UK authority on the most important global issue of our time.

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