HomeLow carbon futureCumbria deserves better than this proposed coal mine

Cumbria deserves better than this proposed coal mine

intext-coal-blogThis post is by Professor Rebecca Willis and Professor Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University, co-authors of The case against new coal mines in the UK.

Cumbria’s West Coast, the very north western tip of England, is a place of beauty. From the rolling cliffs of St Bees, on a clear day you can see over the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man. Turning inland, the Lake District fells dominate the view. William Wordsworth was born just a few miles away. From this vantage point, it is easy to understand Wordsworth’s urge to write about, and campaign for, this precious place.

The dramatic scenery masks a grittier reality. The west coast of Cumbria has an impressive industrial heritage. There were coal mines here until the 1980s; a chemical plant and steelworks too. After the war, its remoteness and industrial know how made the Cumbrian coast a perfect location for the UK’s first nuclear station, Calder Hall. It was followed by a nuclear reprocessing site at Sellafield, which is now the biggest employer in the area. The Sellafield site is as dominant on the skyline as those famous fells.

Today, though, things are not what they were. There are no mines or big plants left. Sellafield has announced plans to shed 3,000 of its 11,000 jobs, and no company has been willing to take forward proposals for a new nuclear plant. Well paid work is hard to come by.

The UK’s first deep coal mine for 40 years
Into this picture comes a company promising investment and jobs. Not quite in the thousands, but an estimated 500 jobs in an area that really needs them. The proposals have been backed enthusiastically by the Local Enterprise Partnership, nearly all of the county’s politicians, and many locals. There’s just one problem: this new hope is a coal mine, on the coast near Whitehaven, digging up coal for use mainly in steel production. It is the UK’s first deep coal mine for more than forty years. When burned, this coal will result in over eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year: that’s equivalent to the emissions of a million households, at today’s levels, or two per cent of the whole of the UK’s annual emissions.

The new mine may well come as a surprise to many people who thought the days of coal were behind us. We no longer need it for electricity generation. It provided just five per cent of the UK’s supply last year, and will be phased out entirely within the next five years. Yet, official policy on coal for steel production (often called coking coal) is confused, to say the least. Despite the huge carbon cost, and the UK’s ambitious carbon targets, there is no clear phase out strategy for coking coal. This has allowed the mine’s proposers to claim that the development is lawful. Cumbria County Council granted planning permission last October, and national government has not intervened.

In a report written by us and published today by Green Alliance, we argue that the mine is unnecessary, and that it damages the UK’s climate ambitions. We take on three claims made by the mine’s supporters: first, that it will not add to carbon emissions, merely substituting for coal mined elsewhere; second, that coal is essential for steel production; and, third, that the provision of job opportunities outweighs the environmental damage that will be wrought by the mine.

Will it be a carbon neutral mine?
The report that officials wrote to inform the local planning committee about the plans made a remarkable claim. It said that the mine would be “broadly carbon neutral”, because the coal produced would substitute for production elsewhere, leading to no net increase in coal production worldwide. But has any global commodity market ever behaved in this way? Basic economic theory suggests that an increase in supply would reduce the price, leading to increased demand and, therefore, increased emissions. No efforts have been made to document this claim of ”carbon neutrality”’, beyond the assertion itself.

No steel without coal?
If you are not convinced by the claims that the mine will be carbon neutral, might there still be a case for using coal in steel production, and cutting carbon elsewhere to compensate? Again, this is the case made by mine supporters. Yet our review of existing research uncovered many ways in which the amount of coal used in steel production could be reduced drastically. First, less steel could be used, through more efficient building and manufacturing processes. Second, recycled steel could be substituted for virgin steel in many cases; the main barrier to greater recycling is the cheapness of conventional steel production. Third, much more could be done to improve the efficiency of steel production; and finally, there are a number of pilot projects, like the Hybrit project in Sweden, which produce steel using hydrogen generated from renewable energy. The barriers to low carbon steel are not technological, they are economic. Digging up more coking coal makes these alternatives less likely to succeed.

What about the jobs?
That leaves us with the last argument in favour of Woodhouse Colliery: those 500 jobs. There is an undeniable need for secure employment in Whitehaven. Many locals have fathers or grandfathers who mined; there would be plenty of takers, though the work is hard. But we estimate that most of the profits from the mine would leave the local area, with only three per cent of the turnover spent on salaries. What alternatives might there be? We found many reports that cite the potential for jobs in a ‘green transition’. For example, GreenPort in Hull has become a hub for wind energy, and Siemens has established a wind-blade factory there. With a confident industrial policy, and a clear strategy for a low carbon transition, West Cumbria could benefit too. But these possibilities are, for now, just that. Possibilities, not prospects. The mine is a terrible idea. But, with nothing else in sight, it is hardly surprising that local communities and politicians alike support it. Cumbria deserves better.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.