In August 2021, UN climate scientists issued their starkest climate warning yet: we’re on the brink of causing irreversible damage to ourselves and our planet if global action isn’t taken to reduce emissions immediately.
You’d think, with such a bleak forecast, that polluting industries like coal would be consigned to history. Particularly given the UK government’s eagerness to be seen as a climate leader ahead of the November 2021 UN climate talks in Glasgow.
And yet the argument that coal is needed for the steel manufacturing industry means the coal story isn’t over yet.
It’s important to note that the coal extracted from the Whitehaven mine would be used to make steel rather than being burnt to generate electricity.
Clearly we will carry on needing steel to make things like wind turbines and other key green infrastructure, but there are ways of making it without using coal.
The Climate Change Committee has said that coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035 by the use of hydrogen and electric arc furnaces.
Research into and investment in such technology should be part of the UK government's green industrial revolution.
On 2 October 2020, Cumbria County Council decided to approve West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery – a mining operation off the picturesque St Bees’ coast and a processing plant near Whitehaven.
The UK government decided not to "call in" the decision – allowing the new coal mine to go ahead. But in February 2021, following widespread criticism from campaigners and local groups, Cumbria Council decided to reconsider its decision citing "new information" on the government's carbon budgets.
The new coal mine was first voted on by council in March 2019. Since then, many local people and groups, including West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, have piled pressure on the council, local representatives, and the government to reject the project and they will continue to oppose it.
More jobs from a green economy
"When there are green alternatives to coal such as wind turbines, why are people looking backwards? Why are they embracing hazardous, dirty industries? They don’t need to.” So asks Gillian Kelly from Cumbria. And she's got a very good point.
According to a report by local organisation Cumbria Action for Sustainability, investing in green solutions could create 9,000 green jobs in Cumbria in the next 15 years, across sectors like renewable energy, insulation and waste management.
4,500 of those jobs would be in West Cumbria alone, compared to just 500 jobs West Cumbria Mining estimates the coal mine would provide.
After taking part in climate strikes in February 2019, Isabella Bridgman got to know environmentally-minded people in her local area, and together they formed the Climate Emergency West Cumbria group.
She has since played a big role in protesting against a project that could create 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime – the same as the total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.
When the mining company submitted its revised planning application, she organised a lobby targeting members of the council’s Development and Control Committee and encouraged her community to respond to the public consultation.
Along with other local groups such as West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, Keep Cumbria Coal in the Hole, and South Lakes Action on Climate Change, Climate Emergency West Cumbria made sure the council knew exactly how the public felt before the October decision.
“We asked people to submit comments and objections to the council prior to them meeting to review the decision”, she said.
Thanks to the work of Isabella and other groups, more than 1,000 responses were submitted to the council. The backlash against the mine forced the council to push back the date of discussion around the application.
Fossil fuel jobs
For some, the coal mine makes sense. The coal extracted would be used to make steel, rather than being burnt in power plants, and West Cumbria Coal says the mine would create jobs. Gaile, who lives 300 metres from the site in Whitehaven, agrees. She tells us that the mine is being seen by local people as “an absolute gift”.
However, this ignores a host of other problems. The mine will generate an extraordinary volume of greenhouse gas emissions over its 50-year lifespan, long after the UK’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Then there's the issue of future coal demand. The Climate Change Committee has confirmed that the UK steel-making industry could stop using coal by as early as 2035. That’s only halfway through the mine’s projected timeline. The EU, a key export market, is moving away from using coal for steel even quicker.
Furthermore, the seabed mining operations will compromise the rugged beauty of the St Bees coastline, the proposed processing plant buildings resemble an array of giant beetles, and construction could damage local wildlife, including an area of ancient replanted woodland.
The project also blocks the way to a green transition from climate-wrecking fossil fuels to renewable energy. For Isabella, the promise of these new jobs comes at too high a cost. “It's really important that we have jobs,” she noted, “but they are being brought in a way that is not at all carbon neutral and not at all beneficial for our environment, especially during a time when it seems public opinion is shifting to being more environmentally conscious, more environmentally aware.”
She wants a secure future for those in her area, not jobs in a polluting industry that may soon be rendered obsolete. In that respect, the Woodhouse Colliery site itself provides a warning to the short-sighted. For more than 60 years it housed the Marchon chemical works before it closed down in 2005, leaving many jobless. In a few decades, coal will be but a smudge in time, but many in the Whitehaven area could be abandoned by an industry that no longer exists.
A green and fair Cumbria
“If you want to have a just and green future, then we need to make sure that social justice is achieved,” Isabella said. “That’s why we need to provide jobs that are sustainable and green.”
Gillian stresses the importance of taking a stand against coal. “These decisions are being made globally. Somebody has to make the right decision. The only right decision here is to say no to this mine”.
Gaile agrees: "We’re facing a climate crisis. We have to make real changes and decisions. Not just as West Cumbria, England, but around the world".
Cumbria County Council initially approved the new mine, but this led to local and national opposition, forcing a Public Inquiry called by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick. This starts later this year on 7 September, and a decision about the future of the mine is expected early 2022.
Following the 2020 victory of Druridge Bay campaigners over plans for a new coal mine in Northumberland, West Cumbrian campaigners are hopeful that their battle may also soon be rewarded.
This is our chance to stop the Cumbria coal mine for good.
This is our chance to stop the Cumbria coal mine for good.