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UK Whitehaven Coal Mine: Planning Inquiry Risks Being Hijacked

September 8, 2021 - An inquiry into plans for a new coking coal mine must not be "hijacked" into a wider debate about emissions, the prospective operator has said.

The planning inspector is considering West Cumbria Mining's application for a mine near Whitehaven. 

Protest outside the planned siteIMAGE SOURCEPA MEDIA
image captionProtesters gathered outside the planned site in Whitehaven

Gregory Jones QC, for the company, told the hearing "objections to this mine amount to little more than emissions offshoring".

Protesters outside claimed the mine undermined UK climate change promises.

image captionThe former Marchon chemical works on the outskirts of Whitehaven is the site of the proposed mine

Mr Jones said: "It's all too easy to object to this development on the basis that it's a coal mine, coal is dirty and bad.

"The reality is that some industries, especially the steel industry, will continue to need coking coal for many years. 

"Once it's recognised as a continuing need, which will be met with imports from the USA, irrespective of whether this development gets [approval], the objections to this mine amount to little more than emissions offshoring.

"We won't see it here, but we will still be relying on it or steel which has been imported into this country.

"Focus on the inquiry rightly should be on the effects of this development, and not hijacked into wider objections against the UK, EU and global steel industries." 

He added the mine would create 530 permanent jobs, with a commitment to fill 80% of those using local people.

Protesters outside the planned siteIMAGE SOURCEPA MEDIA
image captionThe inquiry is expected to last up to 16 days

Paul Brown QC, for Friends of the Earth, said the steel industry was a "major contributor" to greenhouse gas emissions, and if the UK was to have "any chance" of meeting its climate obligations that would have to change.

"Every coal mine which is allowed to open, every lump of coal that is burnt, all of it contributes directly to climate change," he said. 

"The United Kingdom can only credibly claim to be a world leader on climate issues if it practises what it preaches."

He said the UK would lose "any moral authority" over China and India if the mine was approved while the government told them to reduce their dependence on coal.

"If that happens, the implications on climate change are potentially far, far wider than the burning of an additional 2.78m tonnes of coal per year," he said.

The company's case was described as "smoke and mirrors" by Estelle Dehon, representing South Lakes Action on Climate Change, a community-based charity.

Ms Dehon said a "myth has been spun" that locally mined coal would be used in the UK only, instead of importing US coal, as the raw material could be exported across the world and the "magic of mitigation" and off-setting did not exist in reality.

Protests outside the Home OfficeIMAGE SOURCEANDY RAIN
image captionPeople demonstrated against the mine outside the Home Office in London

The mine was approved by Cumbria County Council in October but in February the authority suspended its decision

Planning inspector Stephen Normington said the inquiry, which is being held virtually and will last up to 16 days, will consider how the mine would conform with:

  • Climate change policy
  • Flooding and coastal change policy
  • The need for coal and future demand for it in steel production
  • Employment in the region
  • Effects on tourism and the area's heritage

The council, which had approved the mine to operate up until 2049 before suspending the permission to further consider carbon policy "implications", has said it would adopt a "neutral position" during the inquiry.

West Cumbria Mining previously said exploratory works led it to estimate there were about 750m tonnes of "excellent quality" coking coal in the area.

However, the company would be limited by planning conditions to produce no more than 2.78m tonnes a year.