UK coal mine approval: ‘I don’t understand why we’re doing this,’ says CCC Chair

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE UK Government has approved the first coal mine in 30 years, despite widespread climate concerns and an apparent lack of need.

To be sited in Whitehaven, Cumbria, the £165m (US$201.8m) project was originally approved in 2019. Press highlights that the controversial mine has since faced several delays. In early 2021, ahead of COP26, the UK Government suspended approval as it prepared to take on Presidency of the climate conference.

Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, has now agreed with the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation to approve the mine, allowing the development to commence within the next three years. The planned mine, which will primarily serve the steel industry, will produce 2.8m t/y of coking coal with 360,000 t/y expected to supply the UK steel sector. Operations are to end no later than 2049, ahead of the UK’s 2050 net zero date.

Speaking on BBC Newsnight, Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson argued that domestic supply would be cheaper to UK industry, adding: “We’re shipping in a million tonnes of something we have on our doorstep. That makes no sense at all.”

Another benefit supporters note is that the mine is expected to create more than 500 jobs.

The decision report states that Gove is “satisfied that there is currently a UK and European market for the coal”. However, it also acknowledges that demand for coking coal in the UK and Europe may decrease over the lifetime of the development, and that demand is currently “adequately met with existing sources”.

Chris McDonald, CEO of the Materials Processing Institute, has previously questioned the need for mine, highlighting that steel companies in the UK and Europe are investing heavily in green technologies to move away from coal. He also noted that of the UK’s two blast furnace steel producers, the coal would be unsuitable for use by British Steel. Further, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace states that neither British Steel nor Tata have committed to purchasing the coal.

The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) previously highlighted that 85% of the coal is planned for export and the project will commit the UK to emissions from coking coal for which there may not be domestic demand after 2035.

Over a 25-year operational life, West Cumbria Mining’s project is expected to emit about 1.9m t/y CO2e for a “likely mitigated scenario”. The report concludes that accounting for mitigation, the development’s greenhouse gas emissions will be “relatively neutral, and not significant”.

Appearing alongside Jenkinson on BBC Newsnight, Chair of the UK CCC Lord Deben said that scientific experts say that this is “the wrong decision to make” and pointing to the likely increase in emissions added: “I don’t understand why we’re doing this”.

Stewart said the decision is “completely incompatible” with aspiration to make the UK a “clean energy superpower”, adding: ““There’s a technological revolution building in steelmaking, but this approach could make the UK a backwater in the 21st century clean tech race.”

Tony Bosworth, Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said that “this is an appalling decision” and that coal needs to be “consigned to the history books.

“Approving this mine is a misguided and deeply damaging mistake that flies in the face of all the evidence. The mine isn’t needed, [it] will add to global climate emissions […] Scientists are clear that new fossil fuel projects are not compatible with meeting global climate goals to limit warming to 1.5°C.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas reportedly called the move “a climate crime against humanity” and Party Co-Leader Adrian Ramsey said the decision had been “cynically delayed until just after we have ceased to hold the COP Presidency”. The Guardian reports that Shadow Climate Secretary Ed Miliband called the decision “the death knell of any claims this Government has to climate leadership” adding that the UK needs to create sustainable jobs in renewable energy.

A more climate friendly ‘first’

On the same day that approval for the Cumbria coal mine was announced, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy granted development consent to what is expected to become the nation’s first power CCS project.

SSE and Equinor’s Keadby 3 Carbon Capture Power Station, in the Humber region, will have a generating capacity of up to 910 MW and capture up to 1.5m t/y of CO2, representing at least 5% of the UK’s 2030 capture target.

Grete Tveit, Senior VP for Low Carbon Solutions at Equinor, said: “This news is a significant milestone for our joint ambition to deliver clean, flexible and efficient power to support intermittent renewable generation and maintain security of supply […] This project will not only support the decarbonisation efforts in the UK but will also have a positive impact on the local economy and supply chain, protecting existing jobs and creating new ones.”

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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