‘Dig coal to save the climate’: the folly of Cumbria’s plans for a new coalmine

0
24
Panorama of a city business district with office buildings and skyscrapers and superimposed data, charts and diagrams related to stock market, currency exchange and global finance. Blue line graphs with numbers and exchange rates, candlestick charts and financial figures fill the image with a glowing light. Sunset light.

It was in early 2019 that I first heard about the proposals for a new coalmine in Cumbria. It happened almost by chance. I was speaking with a local government officer who was developing the county’s economic strategy. As someone who has worked with governments on climate issues for many years, I had been asked to offer advice on how to make Cumbria a climate leader. We talked through the opportunities – investing in renewables, helping businesses reduce waste, developing Cumbria’s tourist industry.

And then the government officer mentioned, almost in passing, that they had been helping a company with plans for a new coalmine, to produce coking coal for steel production. I didn’t know what to say. This would be the first new deep coal mine in the UK for 30 years, and the only active one: the last of the old ones closed in 2015. After a long silence I pointed out that digging up coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – is no definition of climate leadership. Yet just a couple of weeks later, Cumbria county council’s planning committee voted unanimously in favour of the mine.

Two years later, the fate of the mine hangs in the balance. In March, after mounting controversy, the local government secretary Robert Jenrick took the decision out of Cumbria’s hands and ordered a public inquiry. It is now Jenrick, not Cumbria, who will decide. But behind the row over the mine lies a complex story about the politics of post-industrial communities, and about the UK’s deeply ambiguous climate strategy.

To many, Cumbria may seem a vision of rural perfection. Each year, 18 million visitors come to admire the breathtaking scenery of the Lake District. The proposed mine site sits in the north-west corner of the county, sandwiched between the sandstone cliffs of St Bees Head to the west and the fells to the east. But Cumbria’s natural beauty masks a difficult economic situation. Jobs in tourism are badly paid and insecure, and farming faces an uncertain future. Decades ago, Cumbria’s west coast was a vibrant industrial centre, with coal mining, chemical plants, steelworks, shipbuilding and nuclear power. Today, all these industries are in decline, or have disappeared entirely. The Sellafield nuclear complex, which used to reprocess nuclear fuel, is now being decommissioned, with the loss of 3,000 jobs. Young people are leaving to find work elsewhere.

Cumbria is, economically and geographically, a long way from London, and from the decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall. In 2014, EMR Capital, a venture capital firm based in Australia (with an office in the Cayman Islands) saw the potential to extract coking coal – a type of coal, also known as metallurgical coal, that is used by the steel industry for powering blast furnaces – from a rich seam just off the Cumbrian coast. A local company, West Cumbria Mining, was established, and funded by EMR Capital to develop plans for a mine they called Woodhouse Colliery. Locally, the proposal was greeted with much enthusiasm, and seems initially to have passed under the radar of national policymakers and environmental groups.

Speaking to local politicians, the appeal is clear. (I asked those involved in the decision to speak freely, and in return, offered them anonymity.) A Labour councillor who represents an area close to the mine site said that on the west coast, “levels of support for the coalmine would probably be 90% or more. It is very hard to find someone who is against it. They offer reasonably well-paid jobs on a semi-permanent basis, for up to 500 people, plus the supply chain. And this isn’t pie in the sky. This is plans drawn up, planning permission applied for, ready to roll … proper investment into what has been basically an abandoned area.” Although he had always pledged his support for the mine, he told me privately that he had his doubts, on climate grounds. But to oppose it publicly “would be like committing ritual hara-kiri politically”, he said. “It would be like being against fish in Hull, or tourism in the Cotswolds.”

Another political candidate, and longtime opponent of the scheme, told me that West Cumbria Mining “have been very good at public relations. They’ve held frequent meetings, they’re doing newsletters, they are very reassuring.” Even before the planning application, the company was investing heavily in community relations, meeting with the political candidates in the 2017 byelection for the Copeland seat, helping with careers fairs and placing stories in local media.

“In the early days,” the candidate told me, “it was very difficult to find anybody who was telling any kind of alternative story.” Everyone was surprised, they said, when, last year, the mine started to get a bad press nationally. They also said that their opposition to the scheme marked them out locally. People are willing to listen, they said, but “the kind ones think I’m well-meaning but misguided, and the other ones think I’m just malicious”.

Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

The tensions are worsened by the inequality across the county. Some of Cumbria’s most vocal opposition has come from Tim Farron, an MP in the south of the county, and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. Politically, there’s no downside for him in opposing the mine. The south and east of Cumbria are relatively affluent. For Farron’s parliamentary colleagues in the north and west of the county, it’s a different story. As another local MP told me, “this dynamic tends to cause a lot of frustration in west Cumbria. People who, frankly, are the best part of an hour-and-a-half away from them wading in and causing trouble in a development that actually really won’t directly affect them and their families.” Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington, just down the coast from the site, has criticised the “climate terrorists” who oppose the mine.

West Cumbria Mining and Cumbria county council have played a clever hand on the climate issue. They haven’t ignored it entirely. Instead, they have come up with an audacious narrative that the mine would actually be beneficial in climate terms – that it would reduce emissions overall. They have built this claim by commissioning consultants to say what they need, and by seeking to complicate an issue that is, at heart, straightforward. They are prolonging a debate which, in reality, has long been settled. These are tactics that fossil fuel industries have used time and time again. Cumbria county council, under strong political pressure to support the mine, has been a willing collaborator.


At first, it suited West Cumbria Mining to play down the climate issue, focusing on the benefits that the mine would bring to the local area and to renewable energy. On the mining company’s website, a series of “factsheets” stress that steel is needed to make wind turbines, and that coal is needed for steel production. There are no references to lower-carbon forms of steelmaking. One of the very few mentions of carbon emissions on the factsheets is an assurance that the mine site itself will be fitted with low-energy lighting and charging points for electric vehicles. West Cumbria Mining’s summary environmental statement, published in 2017, stated that “there will be no significant environmental impacts from Woodhouse Colliery”.

But as questions began to be asked, the company’s tactics changed. In 2020 they commissioned a report from a multinational consultancy, AECOM, whose clients previously included the controversial Adani coalmine in Australia. This report, a greenhouse gas “assessment”, only considers the impact of the mine site itself, during the construction, operation and decommissioning phases, and not the emissions from burning the coal. As the report states, “the use of coal produced by the development is not an effect (whether direct, or indirect/secondary) caused by any phase of the development”. In other words, it’s not the mine’s problem that the coal gets burned.

The same report notes that UK steel companies currently ship coal in from the US – but with a new mine in the UK that would no longer be necessary. The report provided figures for greenhouse gas emissions saved as a result. The mine’s chief executive, Mark Kirkbride, used this assessment to inform the planning committee that “Every tonne of coal from West Cumbria Mining is a tonne that will not be transported across the ocean, thereby saving on greenhouse gas emissions. The claims of a climate emergency continue to ignore the climate benefits of this project, as a result of reduced distances.”

Thoresby Colliery in Nottinghamshire which, after years of threatened closure, shut in 2015.

Talking to local politicians, I have heard these claims about emissions repeated many times. “If we wish to have a steel industry,” said one councillor, “we need coking coal, and that coking coal would be better to be mined in this country … If you dig it out of a hole in the ground in Russia, Australia or Kentucky, then it has to be taken into boats and shipped all the way over here.” An MP told me: “I think you can make an argument that this coalmine is creating green jobs. This is coking coal, it’s as clean as a coalmine can be, it’s producing coking coal for use in steel, for use in renewables.”

It is staggering that the mine and its supporters are able to make these claims, given that the coal mined at Woodhouse Colliery would, when burned, result in 9m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, more than the combined emissions from the entire cities of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. These are emissions we desperately need to avoid. The scientific evidence is straightforward. Just last week, the International Energy Agency, established more than four decades ago to ensure reliable supplies of fossil fuels, declared that if climate goals are to be reached, no new coalmines could be built. It also said that there was enough coal in existing mines to cover the steel sector’s transition from coal to new methods of production. We need to be closing down mines. Opening new mines causes climate change. It’s not complicated.

But if the evidence is straightforward, UK law is ambiguous. Planning law says that climate change must be taken into account, but doesn’t give clear guidance on how this should be done. The government has strong carbon targets, but doesn’t specify how these should apply to different industrial sectors. This ambiguity leaves plenty of space for confusion. And if you’re looking to build a mine, confusion can be useful.


Although Cumbrian councillors had voted to approve the mine in early 2019, things changed quickly after that. In June of that year, the government, with strong cross-party support, introduced a more stringent climate goal. The UK was now committed to meet “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050. Shortly afterwards, it announced the creation of a clean steel fund, to encourage investment in lower-carbon steel production.

Worried about these changed circumstances, Cumbria county council decided that it would need to revisit its decision on the mine. In October 2019, the planning committee, consisting of local councillors from the three major political parties, discussed it once again. Mining company representatives, supported by council officials, reiterated its climate arguments. The council even went so far as to say that the mine would be “carbon neutral”. Yet again, with virtually no debate on the climate implications, the committee voted unanimously in favour.

Until this point, I had been convinced that the committee would realise the evidence against the mine was overwhelming. But by the time of the second unanimous vote, I had to rethink. Obviously, I thought, they were not getting the right information. So I set out to provide it for them. With the carbon-footprinting expert and fellow Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, we tested each claim made by the mining company and the county council. We checked the carbon neutral claim with the leading resource economist Prof Paul Ekins. He found that emissions from shipping coal are insignificant compared to emissions from burning it. For the carbon neutral claim to be true, it would be necessary to identify mines elsewhere in the world that would shut down, or reduce production in line with increased production from the new mine. No such mine had been identified.

An overhead view of the proposed mining site in Whitehaven.

We also talked to steel industry experts who told us that the council’s assumptions about the need for coking coal to produce steel were out of step with what the steel industry itself is saying. It was likely that the coal wouldn’t be needed for long. All steel companies are investing in lower-carbon alternatives to the blast furnaces that require coal, and are expected to move beyond coal-based steel production within 15 to 20 years, developing new techniques that use electricity or hydrogen in place of coal. If the coal was no longer needed for steel production, it is unclear what would happen to the mine, its coal or those 500 jobs.

In January 2020, we published a summary of this evidence in a report for the thinktank Green Alliance. Stories about the mine were starting to appear in the national newspapers, and the council decided that it needed to look at the project for a third time. By then, it had access to work by Berners-Lee, Ekins and many other independent climate strategy and economics experts. Yet this evidence was dismissed. The council, instead, relied on its paid advisers, the consultancy AECOM and Dr Neil Bristow, a consultant and a coal industry insider who, in conference presentations, has warned audiences of threats from “the rising green movement”.

West Cumbria Mining published a line-by-line rebuttal of our report, based on work by Dr Bristow. It contained factual errors, some as basic as saying the report had five authors (it had four); and claimed that we did not understand the difference between thermal coal for power generation, and metallurgical coal (coking coal) for steel production, even though our report is clear on this point. It questioned our professional standing, and claimed to have worked with “mining experts, steel industry experts, and coal quality and marketing experts”, though the only one named was Dr Bristow. It didn’t provide any references or sources for the evidence. Their report didn’t uncover any independent evidence that this mine will result in a reduction in carbon emissions – because no such evidence exists. Berners-Lee and I pointed out all these failings in a further submission, which was, rather surreally, a rebuttal of its rebuttal of our rebuttal. West Cumbria Mining did not offer to correct even the most basic factual errors.

Despite access to all this evidence, in October last year, at the third planning meeting, Cumbria county council again remained committed to its arguments. The planning officer showed councillors a table summarising the overall costs and benefits of the scheme. Somehow, climate change had found its way into the benefits column. Contrary to the expert evidence, it was argued that this coalmine was better than carbon neutral – it was actually carbon negative. It would save more emissions than it caused. The argument was still: dig coal to save the climate.

Farron, the only Cumbria MP to oppose the mine, spoke at the meeting to ask his fellow politicians to see sense. He pointed out that West Cumbria Mining “brazenly ignore the fact that the coal they mine will actually be burned, leaving that inconvenient truth out of their emissions calculations. If you are being kind, you’d call that slippery – but surely no councillor will fall for that?” But a large majority voted to approve the mine once more.

After this meeting, the trickle of stories in national newspapers became a flood. By early 2021, the government’s independent advisers, the Climate Change Committee, had written to the government, questioning the compatibility of the mine proposal with UK climate ambitions. High-profile experts including two government chief scientific advisers, Prof Sir Robert Watson and Prof Sir David King, as well as two leading US experts, the climate scientist James Hansen and President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, thought the same. As the evidence mounted in the press, and a very public row erupted, the government finally took the decision away from the local planning committee and called a public inquiry.


How did absurd claims about a climate-neutral coalmine gain a foothold in this debate? At that final meeting, one after another, the councillors said it was a complex case, and that they had struggled to understand it. The chairman told his committee that it was a “very, very finely balanced decision”. How was it that a scientifically straightforward issue had come to be seen as “very finely balanced”?

Since the basic knowledge that burning fossil fuels causes changes to Earth’s climate systems was established more than 100 years ago, well-organised and well-funded interests have sought to play down the threat. This mine is only the latest development in a story which began back in the 1980s, when fossil fuel companies deliberately questioned the science of climate change in order to avoid regulation. The historian Naomi Oreskes has charted in painstaking detail how these companies have employed a deliberate strategy of questioning scientific evidence, in order to create enough uncertainty to avoid legislation. She calls them “merchants of doubt“. Thanks to these tactics, many years were wasted disputing the science rather than tackling the problem. It wasn’t until 2018 that the BBC warned its editors about the trap of “false balance“, stating, in official guidelines, that “to achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”

An artist's impression of the finished coalmine in Whitehaven.

Outright science deniers are, in the UK at least, now a rare sight. But there are still enough companies and countries that stand to gain in the short-term from digging up fossil fuels, so much so that they are throwing down any argument they can to delay the inevitable. Tactics have switched from denying climate change altogether to what a group of leading climate researchers recently dubbed “discourses of delay“. Spurious arguments and dubious data are thrown into the mix to make the issue seem more nuanced and less certain. Why should we reduce our emissions when other countries are getting away with it? Aren’t our emissions tiny compared to other countries or industries or households? How can we reduce our emissions when there aren’t any alternatives? These questions allow doubt to creep in – a new kind of false balance, which, just like the earlier futile debates about the science, means that time and effort is spent countering arguments with little or no evidence behind them.

The councillors were being besieged by these discourses of delay, complicating what should have been a simple decision. Emissions from burning the coal don’t count, they were told; just one extra coalmine won’t make any difference; coal is needed to make the steel for wind turbines … These arguments worked because they provided cover to councillors desperate to approve a project that promised jobs. As the local candidate opposing the mine put it, some supporters “really understand the argument about climate change, but think, as we all tend to do, that this is just one exception that we could let through, because this place really needs it”.

I am not suggesting that politicians and communities in Cumbria are somehow deliberately in league with sinister forces of climate denial. These discourses of delay, often promoted by people and companies who have fossil fuel interests, have a strong grip on the debate. They provide a way of claiming that you can be pro-mine and pro-climate, rather than having to say, “I support the mine and I don’t care about the climate.” As a local campaigner commented: “The company themselves were very reassuring that it was necessary … that it would displace coal from overseas, so there would be carbon reductions. So everybody kind of bought that line.”


The future of the Cumbrian coalmine remains uncertain, and it is still a deeply divisive project. But it didn’t have to be this way. There are two obvious changes that could be made to avoid similar messes in future. The first would be to make sure that there is a clear link between national climate targets and what happens on the ground. At the moment, there is no direct line of sight between targets set at a national level and individual local areas or industrial sectors. This uncertainty makes it easier to say “we must cut carbon, of course. Just not here, not like this.” If local authorities were given legal responsibilities on climate change, and guidance on how it should be taken into account in planning decisions, there would be a straight path from the science to the decisions made.

The second lesson from the coalmine saga is that in ex-industrial areas like west Cumbria, the need for good jobs is paramount. It wasn’t that west Cumbria wanted a mine – it wanted jobs, and the coalmine just happened to come along. There would be equal, if not more, enthusiasm for other developments offering good jobs that didn’t contravene climate goals. But in the words of one of the politicians supporting the development, the choice was between “proper investment into jobs and a mine, or some pretty pictures on a diagram about a green economy. The reality is that unless those moves are met with substantial and committed projects, you’re not going to get people to move their position.” As far as I know, there are no such projects on the cards in west Cumbria.

This is perhaps the only area where local politicians for and against the mine agree. I asked them all about what they’d like to see happen now, and time and again, they painted a picture of a confident local economic development programme with jobs aligned to climate ambitions.

We’re a long way from that at the moment. Those neglected parts of the country haven’t seen the investment they need. In this context, climate policy risks being seen as another kick in the teeth, stoking further divisions between different parts of the country. But this, surely, is the opportunity. The government needs to spend and invest, to kickstart an economy devastated by Covid. In doing so, it could channel money toward the parts of the country that are crying out for jobs and renewal, and toward the industries that will help us achieve our climate ambitions.

If, after three years of uncertainty, the government says no to this mine, I will certainly be relieved. But I won’t be celebrating until the deeper lesson is learned: climate ambition, economic regeneration and help for neglected communities like west Cumbria must be one and the same thing.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here