Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is considering whether to call in for review Cumbria Council's controversial approval for new coal mine
The development of the UK's first new coal mine in 30 years has been put on hold by the government just hours after it was approved by Cumbria Council, with Housing Secretary Robert Jenkins announcing late on Friday he was considering requests to review the controversial project.
Cumbria County councillors voted 12-3 to grant planning permission to West Cumbria Mining's (WCM) proposed deep coal mine near Whitehaven on Friday. Green groups condemned the decision, which could result in eight million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, arguing it contradicts the UK's commitment reach net zero emissions by 2050 and also undermines its position as a global leader on climate action in the run-up to next year's critical COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
The mine had been approved more than a year earlier, but development was delayed after the High Court granted permission to a local campaign group to pursue a judicial review. The review was shelved after WCM committed to producing solely coking coal for the steel and chemical industries, rather than coal for power generation. The mine, which would extract about three million tonnes of annually, mainly from under the seabed, would also have to close by 2049.
"Following the council's committee meeting this afternoon, the requests to call in will now be considered, after a holding directive on the application was issued by officials under delegated powers, with no ministerial involvement" a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MCLG) said.
"No decision on whether or not to call in the application has yet been made. It would not be appropriate to comment further on a live planning application."
The controversial project would throw a lifeline to the UK's deep coal mining industry, which had ceased operations in December 2015 when the Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire closed down. Steel and chemical factories in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, and Port Talbot are expected to burn the coal's output, with WCM arguing that it will displace imports rather than add to emissions.
Welcoming the council's initial decision on Friday, Mark Kirkbride, CEO of West Cumbria Mining, said the project was "another very important milestone", but made no mention of climate change in his statement. "Woodhouse Colliery will bring significant local benefits to Whitehaven, Copeland and Cumbria in terms of jobs and investment, at a critical time given the impacts of Covid-19 upon employment and economics both locally and nationally," he had said. "I am proud to be part of a scheme which will have such a positive impact on the local community as well as the long-term financial benefits the mine will bring to Cumbria and the UK."
Campaigners, however, argue the mine is incompatible with the UK's 2050 net zero emissions target.
"We can't claim to be fighting the climate crisis one minute, and open a new coal mine the next," said Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at WWF, in the wake of Friday's decision. "Next year the UK is hosting the UN climate conference - we cannot hold our heads high as world leaders when our hands are dirtied by fossil fuels."
The controversy over the new mine comes just weeks after plans for an open-cast coal mine in Druridge Bay, Northumberland were rejected by government as not "environmentally acceptable". A month earlier, in August, an application to extend operations at the Bradley mine in County Durham were also rejected, marking the end of one of the country's last remaining coal mine. Currently, only one remains in England, Hartington in Derbyshire, although there are still several operating in Scotland and Wales. The Westhaven mine would bring the total in England to two.
The UK has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, a target that requires the country to almost completely decarbonise its electricity system, transport, and household heating. Green groups argue the new coal mine is expected to emit eight million tonnes of carbon annually, and as such will undermine efforts to reach that goal. But WCM and other project backers - including the constituency MP, Trudy Harrison, and its Labour-controlled district council - say it is viable as it will only supply energy to industry, not power generation.
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