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Outcry over go-ahead for Cumbrian mine may lead to a further review

Illustration of planned coal mine / Source:

When it emerged on January 6th that the UK government did not intend challenging the planning application for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria – the first such UK application to be approved in 30 years – the reaction was one of disbelief. Energy industry analysts and environmentalists alike condemned the decision amid claims that it called into question the existence of a unified, coherent UK government policy on the environment.

The chorus of disapproval has intensified since with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government criticised for its decision “not to interfere with the decision-making process of local councils on planning matters”. The same government department rejected plans to develop a coalmine in nearby Northumberland last September as “not environmentally acceptable”.

In the immediate aftermath of the government waiving its opportunity to make a similar adjudication in the Cumbrian case in January, Tony Bosworth from Friends of the Earth said it showed “jaw-dropping inconsistency”. He added that it “completely undermines the government’s credibility on the climate crisis – especially ahead of the crucial UN summit later this year”.

West Cumbrian Mining – the beneficiaries of the decision – confirmed that the coal will not be an energy source for the National Grid. They claim that the mine will supply metallurgical coal to the UK and international steel industry and “deliver hundreds of well-paid jobs and support a first-class supply chain across the country”. They anticipate that site investigation works will begin in Spring 2021 with coal production commencing 18 months later.

There is a divergence of opinion on the mine within the region. Local Conservative MP, Trudy Harrison, has been instrumental in guiding the application through the review stages and the borough’s mayor and other councillors have stated the case for the mine in an area with high unemployment rates. However, there is significant opposition amongst local residents and legal challenges are being prepared.

Meanwhile, ever more influential figures have waded in to voice concerns over the decision. On February 3rd, James Hansen – former scientific head of NASA – wrote to Boris Johnson encouraging the PM to use “the chance to change the course of our climate trajectory”. A failure to do so, Hansen added, would see Johnson “vilified in the streets of Glasgow, London and around the world”. The reference to Glasgow is another nod to the UN COP26 summit which takes place there in November.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – government advisers on tackling climate change – has urged Communities secretary Robert Jenrick to review his department’s decision which “gives a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities in the year of COP26”.

It is said that Alok Sharma – formerly business secretary and now working full-time as president of COP26 – is also furious with the Cumbrian decision made at the time he took on the COP26 role. The opposition to the mine will bring sustained pressure on a government which proposed eliminating coal from the electricity mix by 2024 in their Energy White Paper released only two months ago.

Something, one feels, has to give and that may well be the case with news breaking today - February 9th - that Cumbria Council is to re-consider the decision to give the go-ahead for the mine.


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