Why is the new Cumbrian coal mine so controversial?

West Cumbria Mining plans to open a deep coal mine on the outskirts of Whitehaven to mine metallurgical or coking coal for use in the steel industry.

Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven
Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has granted planning permission for what would be the first new coal mine in 30 years but why is it so controversial?

– What is the proposal?

West Cumbria Mining (WCM) plans to open a deep coal mine on the former Marchon chemical works on the outskirts of Whitehaven, Cumbria, to mine metallurgical or coking coal for use in the steel industry.

The mine’s application says that nearly 2.8 million tonnes of coal will be extracted per year.

Proposed coking coal mine in Cumbria
(PA Graphics)

– How long has it taken to get approval?

The development was first proposed in 2017 and has been approved three times by Cumbria County Council but then-communities secretary Robert Jenrick decided to “call in” the application so that an inquiry could be held to explore the arguments put forward by both supporters and opponents of the proposal. The decision was repeatedly delayed following the inquiry last year.

– How many jobs will it provide?

The inquiry heard the mine would provide 532 permanent jobs, 80% filled from the local workforce, and support 1,000 jobs in the supply chain.

– Why is it so controversial?

A little over a year ago the UK hosted the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where it lobbied other countries to “consign coal to history”.

Opponents say the decision undermines UK efforts to reach net zero and sends the wrong signals to other countries about its climate priorities.

Labour shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said it is “no solution to the energy crisis, it does not offer secure, long-term jobs, and it marks this Government giving up on all pretence of climate leadership”.

– How does this square with the UK’s net zero targets?

Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven
Demonstrators outside the proposed Woodhouse Colliery, south of Whitehaven (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Gregory Jones KC, representing WCM at last year’s inquiry, claimed the development would be a world first in being a “net zero compliant” mine and help in the “transition” to a greener steel industry.

But WCM’s case was described as all “smoke and mirrors” by Estelle Dehon, representing South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC).

Ms Dehon said a “myth has been spun” that local mined coal would be used in the UK only, instead of importing US coal, as the raw material could be exported across the world and the “magic of mitigation” and off-setting did not exist in reality.

– What do supporters say?

Those who have welcomed the decision say the mine will create jobs and opportunity in the area.

Mike Starkie, Conservative mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, said “the biggest announcement in generations” will “bring jobs, prospects and opportunity to the people of west Cumbria and the people of west Cumbria are going to be grateful for generations”.

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