Efforts to prevent a new coal mine in Cumbria suffered a blow in November after the Secretary of State decided not to ‘call in’ the county council’s decision to approve the mine.

We asked one of the campaigners against the mine to share an overview of what’s happened so far, and what the next steps might be in the battle to prevent it. Our thanks to Maggie Mason for contributing this guest post for us and sharing her unique insight, as a retired minerals planner at Cumbria County Council.

CAfS strongly supports the views of campaigners that the new mine should not go ahead at a time of climate crisis and that, instead, a transition to a zero-carbon Cumbria could create thousands of skilled new green jobs.

Our patron and leading carbon footprinting expert, Mike Berners-Lee, has estimated that the emissions from burning coal extracted by the mine would be round 420 million tonnes, not far short of a whole year of UK emissions!

Here, Maggie outlines what’s happened so far, what the next steps might be and her own perspective on the mine. The sentiments and opinions in the piece are Maggie’s own.

What’s happened so far?

On 31 October 2019, Cumbria County Council ratified its original decision to approve the West Cumbria Mining planning application for the first new deep coal mine in the UK for 30 years. On 1 November, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), rejected requests to ‘call in’ the planning application to decide it himself.

Will the mine go ahead now?

The mine can’t be started immediately as there are legal agreements with landowners to sign before the Decision Notice is issued, and both a coal extraction licence and a licence from the Marine Management Organisation are needed before any coal can be dug out. A crowd funding appeal to raise money for a legal challenge seems to have been fairly successful, which may or may not cause further delays.

What are the different views on the mine?

There is no doubt some people have welcomed these decisions, because West Cumbria (and Whitehaven in particular) needs jobs, and past industrial contamination on the Marchon site needs to be cleared up. It is also true that Copeland Borough Council has been hit very hard by austerity and would welcome financial ‘community benefits’, and that many people have become dependent on food banks.

However, young West Cumbrian objectors to the mine, and people concerned about climate change and flooding across Cumbria, have been dismayed by the news. They argue that the reports to the councillors on the Planning Committee have been seriously misleading, and failed to balance harms and benefits as planning policy requires.

What arguments were put forward against the mine?

There were two main issues raised by objectors.

Firstly: will there really be ongoing need for coking coal that will persist and remain profitable enough to be economic, throughout the 50-year planning permission? The history of west Cumbria, and coal areas everywhere, is that funds for restoration and decontamination are rarely still there when mines close.

Secondly: are the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions unacceptable (global heating, flooding, etc.), and, if so, are they outweighed by the benefits of the investment and jobs in the area?

On the first count, the planning officers’ reports, both in March and October this year, took a fairly simple (and, it could be argued, blinkered) view that one graph of global demand for steel showed a ‘business as usual’ rising curve, that coking coal is totally essential for making steel, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Objectors presented evidence that you CAN make steel without coal, that the buyers of British Steel were rapidly switching from coal to gas, and then to low-carbon hydrogen, supported by new UK government funding of £150 million for low-carbon hydrogen production, and £250 million for a new Clean Steel Fund. Even on economic grounds, respected economic and industry commentators have said coking coal could be less economic for steel making than the low-carbon hydrogen alternative as early as 2030.

On the second point, the planning officers argued that they could ignore the emissions caused by the use of the 2.8 million tonnes of coal a year because they could assume that it was a substitute for whatever mine was currently the source of UK and EU coal. (Can anyone prove which mine and that it would close?)

It was admitted that greenhouse gas emissions would be caused from construction of the mine, its infrastructure, the processes of extraction, washing the coal, and pumping waste back into the mine, etc. However, the County Council guessed (with no quantification at all) that these emissions were roughly equal to a positive carbon benefit from savings in transport emissions, due to Whitehaven being closer to Europe than the USA. To laughter from the public gallery in the Committee Chamber, it was claimed it was a ‘zero-carbon’ mine – that is, it would have no impacts on global heating at all!

At the Cumbria County Council meeting on 31 October, where the planning approval for the mine was ratified, members of the council’s DC&R Committee insisted in response to objectors that they were not ‘climate deniers’. However, one said that we all want a green planet in “20, or 40 or 60 years”. Anyone who believes we can wait that long is not reading the news or the science. Another claimed that mankind was in charge of the earth and we were doing really well, and another that he had worked in the steel industry for 30 years and knew that coking coal was essential.

Have local election processes and public apathy left us with councillors who are bedded in the past, and have an unduly pessimistic view of UK industry to innovate and decarbonise? Have officers properly informed councillors about both the diminishing need for coking coal and the urgency of the climate emergency?

The county council, the district councils in west Cumbria and the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) have long put their hopes in the ‘Energy Coast’, and in new nuclear in particular, to provide long-term, skilled and reasonably paid jobs. This mine is not the answer to the loss of new nuclear. They should be working out how to reduce Cumbria’s emissions, insulate our homes, protect us from flooding and ensure sustainable work for the young people of west Cumbria.

Cumbria needs innovation, efficiency and a positive approach to carbon reduction to build a better future than this. Whether legal challenges halt the planning application for this mine or not, west Cumbria must be helped to develop a modern economy that is resilient, fit for the 21st century and provides benefits for all residents.

Maggie Mason, BA (Arch) Dip TP

Maggie, who is from Kendal, is a retired minerals planner at Cumbria County Council