Climate change: Six questions about the Cumbria coal controversy

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Artist's impression

image copyrightWest Cumbria Mining Company

image captionThe mine would extract coking coal from beneath the Irish Sea to be used in steel production

Pressure is growing on the prime minister to ban a new coal mine in Cumbria.

The county council approved the colliery, and the government decided not the challenge the decision.

But green groups have written to Boris Johnson saying the mine undercuts his promise to lead the world away from coal.

A spokesperson for islands at risk from climate change urges the PM to match his words with deeds.

Why is the mine controversial?

A firm applied for planning permission to dig for coking coal in Cumbria, and councillors approved the bid. They said the scheme did not contravene planning rules and would help diversify jobs.

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But coal is seen as the dirtiest of the fossil fuels driving up global temperatures. The British government heads a UN climate summit in November and has launched the ‘Powering Past Coal’ alliance of nations to relinquish coal.

Fiji is an alliance member – and its UN ambassador Satyendra Prasad told me opening a new mine sends the wrong signal.

“Investment in renewables in place of coal is the morally correct choice. In the global climate struggle, words are extremely important. Deeds matter even more,” he said.

Titus Gwemende from Oxfam in Southern Africa, said: “The UK continues to dig more coal while the least contributors (to climate change) in Africa face pressure to stop. This double standard risks undermining climate talks – and I hope the UK will change course.”

So why didn’t the government block the mine?

This was a thorny decision. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick could have over-ridden the council, but amid the turmoil of the January Covid lockdown, he put out a notice saying he would not block permission because it was a “local” issue. Environmentalists were furious, defining climate change as the ultimate global problem.

image copyrightReuters
image captionRobert Jenrick chose not to overrule the local council

The government later told me there were no grounds to block the application under planning law. A spokesperson said leaving the decision to the council aligned with the Tory principle of having decisions taken at the lowest possible tier of government.

Was the government under pressure to approve the mine from its own MPs?

Yes. The mine lies in the Copeland constituency in a cluster of so-called Red Wall seats won by the Conservatives from Labour. Cumbria has low unemployment (2.8% from July 2019-June 2020 compared with 3.4% in Copeland and 3.8% nationally), but the MPs argued that well-paid manual jobs shouldn’t be turned away.

The local Copeland MP Trudy Harrison is the prime minister’s bag-carrier Parliamentary aide – and it’s hard to conceive that she did not drop a word in his ear, although she wouldn’t talk to me about that.

Are the local MPs prioritising jobs over climate change?

They insist they’re not. The key to the debate, they say, is that the mine will produce coking coal, which is needed for steel. The government is phasing out thermal coal for power stations by 2025 but has not announced any plans to phase out coking coal.

The advisory Climate Change Committee says the UK must stop burning coking coal by 2035 in order to hit climate targets. I understand the committee fears if the mine goes ahead its owners and workers will lobby irresistibly to keep it running after that date.

But the MPs fear that technology to create virgin steel using non-coal methods such as hydrogen won’t be ready by 2035. Mark Jenkinson, Tory MP for nearby Workington, told me: “It’s better for the environment to dig coking coal from Workington than from Wyoming, because it saves on emissions from transport. We can’t let other countries pick up the tab for emissions on our behalf.”

What do environmentalists say?

Environmentalists have long called for a moratorium on new fossil fuels, because already far more has been discovered than the world can burn without causing dangerous climate change.

When John Sauven, from Greenpeace, heard that approving the mine was considered a ‘local’ decision he said: “Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view – or the world will be toast”.

He’s written to Boris Johnson saying: “As host of the largest global climate talks since the signing of the Paris Agreement, it is mystifying that a new coal mine has been approved.

“This will make it much harder to fulfil the ambitions of the alliance to phase out coal. We call on you to reverse the decision”.

Labour’s Climate Change lead Matthew Pennycook agreed. He said: “This makes a mockery of the government’s claim to be a climate leader, and won’t provide the long-term job security Cumbrians deserve.

“Decarbonised steel is the future and Ministers should be relentlessly focused on developing an active industrial strategy that will attract good, low-carbon jobs and investment to counties like Cumbria.”

The Lib Dems and Greens agree.

Did the pressure from MPs influence the decision?

Political considerations are not supposed to influence the planning process, and Mr Jenrick’s spokesperson said he didn’t consult other ministers in order to avoid breaching that rule.

No 10 tells me the PM was not involved in the decision-making process. The president of the upcoming climate summit, Alok Sharma – who co-ordinates government climate policies – dodged a question from MPs whether he had been consulted.

But Business and Climate Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng later said he discussed the mine with colleagues.

The fact that the mine will produce coking coal was a factor, he said.

But he wryly admitted that allowing the mine would create a “slight conflict” with climate policy. Mr Sharma agreed that the issue could be seen to be “embarrassing”.

Did anyone do wrong?

No one is suggesting that any of the politicians misbehaved – but it’s clear that the issue is extremely embarrassing.

The government could avoid future pain on the issue by introducing a clear policy on coking coal.

One thing’s for sure – as the UN climate summit looms closer, the government’s ambitions across the board will be increasingly scrutinised to see if it’s walking the climate walk.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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Tagged , Climate, coal, Controversy, Cumbria, questions