Public inquiry into plans for Britain’s first coal mine in 30 years starts today


A public inquiry into divisive plans for a £160million new deep coal mine on the Cumbria coast will begin today amid opposition from eco-activists, a Government rift and a major UN climate conference in Glasgow now just weeks away.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick intervened in March to call in plans for the construction of Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven, Britain’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years. 

Northern Tory MPs and the local council had backed the project, arguing it would bring 500 much-needed jobs and investment to the region.  

But green activists said the Copeland mine would damage the environment and the UK’s reputation ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland starting on November 1.

There was also a row in Government when Mr Jenrick, who is in charge of planning matters, previously decided not to challenge the local approval for the Copeland mine.

The decision angered Alok Sharma, the former business secretary handed full-time leadership of the UN climate change event by Boris Johnson, who was reported to be ‘apoplectic’ about Jenrick’s decision to let the Copeland coal mine go ahead. Mr Jenrick then performed a U-turn and ordered an inquiry, which begins today.

Britain’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years is situated in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland. Pictured: An artist’s impression of the Woodhouse Colliery

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick intervened and ordered a public inquiry into the construction of Woodhouse Colliery after a cabinet row

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick intervened and ordered a public inquiry into the construction of Woodhouse Colliery after a cabinet row

One scientist said the mine would guarantee the Prime Minister ‘ignominy and humiliation [for] contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’.

What is coking coal – and why is it so controversial? 

Metallurgical (met) coal (sometimes referred to as coking coal) is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock found within the Earth’s crust. 

The coal is ‘baked’ in a coke oven which forces out impurities to produce coke, which is a form of almost pure carbon. 

Modern steel plants, the likes of which are predominantly found in the UK and Europe, include extensive gas treatment and capture to significantly reduce emissions. 

The steel that is produced is used in a wide range of domestic uses (e.g. cars, kettles, trains) as well as in the manufacture of wind turbines and nuclear power stations, key alternatives to historical coal-powered energy generation.

Coking coal for steel is different to thermal coal which is used to create steam to power turbines for creating electricity. 

Following a government change in policy in early 2018, all coal fired power generation in the UK will end by October 2025 and as such will no longer form part of the UK power source in the very near future. 

Metallurgical coal was first used to make steel in China in the 11th Century.

It takes around 770 kilograms of met coal to make the steel for a typical mid-sized car.

The quality of the metallurgical coal that Woodhouse Colliery will produce is equivalent to premium US High Volatile ‘A’ coal, WCM claims.  

Source: WCM 

The announcement came after Cumbria County Council said it would reconsider the application by WCM to mine for coking coal for use in steel production in light of new information on proposed greenhouse gas targets for the 2030s from Government climate advisers.

Leading climate scientists and campaigners had criticised the plans for the site near Whitehaven and said it undermined the Government’s commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and harmed its credibility ahead of hosting November’s international Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The county council, which previously supported the WCM proposal, now states its position is ‘neutral’ as the planning inspectorate stages the inquiry, with a recommendation from planning inspector Stephen Normington to follow at a later date before the final decision is made by Mr Jenrick.

The South Lakes Action on Climate Change group and Friends of the Earth will present evidence in opposition to the plans for the UK’s first new deep coal mine for 30 years.

Friends of the Earth argues the coal produced will increase global carbon emissions and that the steel industry is already taking steps to decarbonise and is already moving away from coal.

It also argues there are better ways to provide jobs in the region.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Tony Bosworth said: ‘With the world hurtling towards catastrophic climate change, we should be slamming on the brakes, not hitting the accelerator with yet more fossil fuels.

‘Areas like Cumbria should be at the forefront of Government plans to transform our economy, create new jobs and build the cleaner future we so urgently need.’

WCM said the underground mine, to be known as Woodhouse Colliery, will supply the British and European steel industry with locally produced coking coal until 2049 and will create 532 direct and 1,618 indirect jobs.

It aims principally to target steelworks in the UK, North Sea and Baltic markets which, it says, currently predominantly use imported metallurgical coal from North America, Australia and Russia.

The company said it is committed to adopting a policy of carbon offsetting and will fund and develop an accredited ‘carbon sink’ forest scheme by planting more than 250,000 trees every year during the project and also plans to power the mine using renewable electricity.

Mayor of Copeland Mike Starkie

American scientist Dr James Hansen, dubbed 'the father of climate change awareness' published an open letter to Boris Johnson declaring the Copeland mine would guarantee the PM 'ignominy and humiliation [for] contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature'

Mayor of Copeland Mike Starkie (left)backed the plans for 500 jobs  and Dr James Hansen (right), the father of climate change, said the plan would be humiliating for Boris Johnson

The public inquiry, to be held online, is expected to last up to four weeks.

The firm behind the plan, West Cumbria Mining (WCM) wants to extract around 2.5 million tonnes of coal a year to supply UK and European steel-making coal plants, which currently import around 45 million tonnes a year from the USA, Canada, Russia and Australia.

It would retrieve coal from under the Irish sea, off the Cumbrian coast. 

WCM claims the mine would create 500 jobs.  

The proposed site is next to the location of a former colliery in Whitehaven that shut three decades ago.

The new mine in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland is not for ‘thermal’ use in power stations. 

It is coking coal, for indispensable use in the blast furnaces of the British steel industry. 

One tonne of such coal is required for the production of every 1.25 tonnes of steel — and, as yet, there is no economically viable alternative.

But the Prime Minister has declared his commitment to making Britain ‘the Saudi Arabia’ of wind power, as part of the plan to make our entire electricity network ‘net-zero carbon’ by 2050.

The PM’s father, 80-year-old Stanley, denounced the Government’s decision not to block the construction of the mine, calling it ‘a massive mistake.’

He added: ‘How can we ask other countries to bring in their climate change reduction programmes when we are reopening the whole coal argument here?’

Mayor of Copeland, Mike Starkie, said the mine would generate at least 500 jobs in a part of the country that has suffered more than most from deindustrialisation. 

But American scientist Dr James Hansen, dubbed ‘the father of climate change awareness’ last month published an open letter to Boris Johnson declaring the Copeland mine would guarantee the PM ‘ignominy and humiliation [for] contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’. 

National Grid is forced to fire up two coal-fired power stations as heatwave double-whammy of no wind plus surge of demand for aircon leaves UK’s electricity supplies unable to cope

The National Grid was forced to turn on one of its coal-burning power plants to meet energy demands.

Energy firm EDF was requested to turn on its two coal units at West Burton A power station in Nottinghamshire after wind power failed to meet requirements.

The station itself is one of the UK’s last remaining coal-burning power plants and is due to be decommissioned next year.

Despite only providing less than four per cent of all electricity being produced for Britain for a brief period yesterday, it brought an end to the UK’s latest coal-free period.

The National Grid was forced to turn on one of its coal-burning power plants to meet energy demands

The National Grid was forced to turn on one of its coal-burning power plants to meet energy demands

The Times reports that a surge in air conditioning usage as a result of higher temperatures may be the cause of the increased energy demands. 

While the Government has set a target of October 1, 2024, for the UK to no longer use coal to generate electricity, for now, EDF continues to expect to have to rely on coal between November and March. 

Commenting on the need to switch on the coal burners, the National Grid told the publication: ‘We have seen some low wind, that is a contributing factor. We have a range of generation types available to us to draw on. 

‘At the moment, to ensure we keep a secure supply and balance the system, we have drawn on some coal as part of the mix.’

While coal made up 62 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation in 1991, that figure has been slashed, meaning that when an extra energy boost from coal was needed, it made up just 3.9 per cent.

However, for a brief period yesterday, wind power accounted for as little as 1.9 per cent, before rising again in the evening. 

Energy firm EDF was requested to turn on its two coal units at West Burton A power station in Nottinghamshire after wind power failed to meet requirements (stock image)

Energy firm EDF was requested to turn on its two coal units at West Burton A power station in Nottinghamshire after wind power failed to meet requirements (stock image)

Normally, this is far outstripped by wind power, which meets a variable 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity demands, depending on the strength of the wind on a given day.

Speaking to Sky News, an EDF spokesperson said: ‘Two units at the station have helped to balance the UK electricity system in order to ensure security of supply.’ 

The West Burton coal-burning power plant is just one of two of its kind to be currently connected to the National Grid – the other is in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire.

2016 was the first year in which the UK was able to avoid using coal power, managing to source its electricity from other sources for 188 hours.

This had risen to 5,000 hours last year, but as of May this year, the UK had only gone 1,511 hours without coal.

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