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Michael Gove’s coal mine decision is a climate disaster – and it’s only the beginning

Britain’s first new deep mine in 30 years has perpetuated net zero myths that could lead to more fossil fuel use.

By India Bourke

If the UK once had claims to climate leadership, it has blown them apart with the approval of its first new deep coal mine in 30 years. Michael Gove’s consent to the Woodhouse Colliery in West Cumbria not only condemns the UK to annual emissions equivalent to 200,000 extra cars, it sends a message to poorer, coal-reliant nations that pledges to “phase down” coal are mere hypocrisy. “A crime against humanity,” is how Green MP Caroline Lucas summed up the decision. Lord Deben, Chairman of the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said it “undermines UK efforts to achieve net zero”.

More worrying still, the approval of this mine, whose coal will be used to make steel, could be seen as the start of a fossil fuel bonanza. The government is in the process of issuing numerous new oil and gas licences, and what the long legal battles around this mine have revealed is that the UK planning system has a carbon accounting problem – which Rishi Sunak’s government is apparently unwilling to fix.

When pushing through any controversial new piece of infrastructure, the onus is on a government to show how the scales of merit and harm tilt in the project’s favour. But West Cumbria Mining, which is backed by the venture capital company EMR Capital, has exploited climate-change linked gaps in the UK planning process to press the mine’s case. This has included arguing that the 9m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning its “carbon-neutral” coal should not count towards the project’s overall environmental impact, as well as claiming that the coal is a necessary support to the British steel industry. The resulting planning and legal battles have led to the decision going all the way to a public inquiry.

On Thursday 7 December, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary then echoed the above greenwash in a statement which referenced the idea of the mine’s methods being “net zero compliant”. This notion, however, not only relies on expanding the use of the still unproven technology of Carbon Capture Storage to capture the plant’s own emissions, it also helps cement in the planning system a limited assessment of what emissions count as belonging to the mine. This means not including a fossil fuel project’s “downstream” emissions from their point of use: “…the ‘essential character’ of the proposed development does not extend to the subsequent use of metallurgical coal by the facilities and processes beyond the planning application boundary and outwith the control of the applicant,” Gove said in his decision.

Yet why was Gove even presented with such a choice when the International Energy Agency has warned that no new fossil fuel reserves can be exploited if the world is to keep global warming within “safe” limits? And when the UK has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050? Lord Deben has described the project as “absolutely indefensible”. 

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Even the non-climate arguments in favour of the mine do not stack up. In terms of helping to produce UK steel, industry leaders have told Channel 4 that the mine’s high-sulphur coal would not be suitable for use to any great extent. West Cumbria Mining itself has meanwhile admitted that around 85 per cent of the mine’s output would be exported. 

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West Cumbria Mining has argued that the project would create 500 new jobs, but this is short-term thinking. Investing more in the hydrogen-based green steel industry could create more employment, and for the longer term. As Alok Sharma, the MP and former president of the Cop26 climate conference, has said “you can create a lot more jobs [by investing] in the green sectors”.

And when it comes to claims that the mine’s output will displace the coal that would otherwise be mined overseas, academics have shot this down – saying there’s “no evidence” and pointing to the process by which increased production leads to lower prices and more demand. Equally, the CCC has argued that coking coal – which is what the Cumbria mine would produce – could be “displaced completely” by 2035 thanks to the rise of hydrogen as a replacement fuel in steel-making. Tata Steel has committed to “making CO2 neutral with hydrogen” in the UK and the Netherlands.

When the negative climate impact of coal is added to the scales on top of the above, then the mine’s case caves. So what could be done to remedy this oversight? The UK may have set itself clear climate targets, but how these should apply to various industrial sectors has not yet been clarified, Rebecca Willis, professor of energy and climate governance at Lancaster University, has stressed

One answer could involve overhauling the National Planning Policy Framework, and the related Environmental Impact Regulations, so that the consideration and measurement of all end-point emissions (known as “scope 3”) are explicitly included in planning decisions on new fossil fuel extraction. So suggests Maggie Mason, a retired planner and coordinator for the charity South Lakes Action on Climate Change. Another could be amending the 1994 Coal Industry Act so it no longer requires that “an economically viable” industry is maintained by the Coal Authority when considering applications for expanded extraction.

Pulling the UK out of the Energy Charter Treaty has also been recommended by campaigners and analysts, such as the think tank Common Wealth, as a means of loosening the fossil fuel industry’s grip on infrastructure planning. This treaty could result in polluters suing the government for compensation amid policies that support a renewable energy transition, and just last month the German cabinet approved their nation’s exit from the agreement.

In response to the news, Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, tweeted that the decision on the mine “further cements Rishi Sunak as an out of date fossil fuel PM in a renewable age”. And climate campaigners and local groups are already rallying to gather funds for a new legal challenge. 

But unless a phase out plan for fossil fuel extraction can be clearly applied across government departments, then Cumbria’s new coal mine risks being only the start of a dangerous trend. Sealing the climate fissures in the UK planning process has never been more urgent.

[See also: China’s global coal machine won’t be stopped so easily]