Inquiry to consider the proposed new Cumbria coal mine

07 Sep 2021

Planning and Environment

A public inquiry into a controversial application for permission to build the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years opened on 7 September 2021. The application raises a number of high-profile environmental and climate change issues as well as wider points about the future of UK green infrastructure at a critical moment, with UK set to host COP26 in November this year.

The inquiry is presently scheduled to run for four weeks. Estelle Dehon and Rowan Clapp act for South Lakes Action on Climate Change instructed by Matthew McFeeley of Richard Buxton Solicitors.

West Cumbria Mining (‘WCM’) proposes to build an underground coal mine and associated development just south of Whitehaven in Cumbria. At full production, the mine is proposed to extract, from under the sea, 2.78 million tonnes per annum of ‘metallurgical coal’ to be sold for use in steelmaking. The mine is proposed to operate for 25 years.

The procedural history of the application is a study in the increasing impact of climate legislation and policy in planning. The application returned to Cumbria County Council’s Planning Committee for consideration four times, including following the UK’s decision to adopt the net zero target and following the publication of the Sixth Carbon Budget.

In March 2021 the Secretary of State ‘called-in’ the application for his own determination, citing as part of his reasons the recommendations for the Sixth Carbon Budget (i.e. for greater emissions reductions) and that the application raises planning issues of more than local importance and issues of substantial cross-boundary or national controversy. The planning inspector hearing the public inquiry will report to the Secretary of State, who will decide whether to grant permission for the proposed mine.

The Council is taking a neutral stance at the inquiry, meaning the role of opposing the application has fallen on two other parties: Friends of the Earth, and a small local charity which has been focusing on climate change since 2007: South Lakes Action on Climate Change (‘SLACC’)[1].

Their case is that the purported ‘net zero’ nature of the mine is illusory: on WCM’s own figures on the greenhouse gas (including methane and carbon dioxide) which the operation of the mine would cause, the mine would eclipse the net-zero compliant projections by the UK’s Climate Change Committee for greenhouse emissions from all operational coal mines. If the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal are taken into account, the mine would emit 220 million tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime.

The UK’s statutory commitment to urgent greenhouse gas reductions is thus incompatible with permission for the new coal mine and granting permission will undermine the UK’s climate leadership. SLACC will be leading evidence on this from former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Professor Sir Robert T. Watson, and from Professor Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London.

SLACC also highlights that the development of new green steelmaking technologies, which do not rely on the use of metallurgical coal, is likely to be widespread in Europe in the near future with a view to meeting stringent European emissions targets. There will thus be little or no need for the coal in the UK/EU and mean the product of the mine will be sold further afield, likely obstructing the uptake of green steel technology in developing countries and damaging the global effort needed to tackle climate change.

SLACC will be leading evidence on this from Professor Lars J Nilsson, Professor of Environmental and Energy Systems Studies at Lund University, and from Professor Paul Ekins OBE, Professor in Resources and Environmental Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources. It will also lead evidence from Professor Stuart Haszeldine OBE, the world’s first Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage, to show that the coal produced by the mine is unlikely to be of sufficient quality to make it saleable in the UK/Europe, again meaning it will be sold elsewhere.

Both Friends of the Earth and SLACC will lead evidence to counter suggestions that the mine will displace or substitute for coal currently supplied into the UK and Europe from the US, showing that US coal producers will simply locate another market (potentially even further afield) for their coal and undermining any claim of ‘net’ greenhouse gas savings. Viewed in this way, the mine will add another source of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when there is an overwhelming need to reduce them.

Finally, SLACC will lead evidence from the New Economics Foundation which shows that most employees at the mine would be non-local and that the mine risks becoming a stranded asset as the push for green solutions to climate change across all sectors intensifies.

[1] SLACC was established in 2007 after a City Councillor from San Salvador visited Kendal as part of a speaking tour, and explained that mudslides in his city, caused by torrential rain as a result of climate change, had led to deaths. He brought home that climate change would get worse and affect people across the world. SLACC has actively opposed the mine proposal, garnering support from experts such as the Materials Processing Institute and Professor Paul Ekins OBE, Professor in resources and environmental policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London.