By Rob Horgan
January 5, 2023 - Two legal challenges are being drawn up against plans to build the first coalmine in the UK for 30 years.
Communities secretary Michael Gove granted planning approval for the £165M Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria last month.
The decision immediately caused controversy with Chairman of the Climate Change Committee Lord Deben saying that approving the plans “diminished” the UK’s “hard-fought global influence on climate”.
Lawyers representing Friends of Earth have confirmed that they have started legal proceedings and will file its claim later this month. The claim will focus on the mine’s climate impacts.
Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith - representing the group - said: “A critical issue raised by Friends of the Earth during the inquiry was the signal that granting a new coal mine in the middle of a climate emergency would send to the rest of the world.
"Friends of the Earth believes that this was never properly grappled with by either the Inspector or the Secretary of State. We hope that the court will agree that this argument justifies a full hearing.”
A seperate legal team has also written to Gove to inform him that they are drawing up a legal challenge on behalf of campaign group South Lakes Action on Climate Change.
The letter from Richard Buxton Solicitors states that they will be applying for a judicial review hearing in a bid to overturn the decision.
The letter adds that Gove’s decision and the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation report were “shot through with errors”.
West Cumbria Mining, which has been working on the plans for the mine since 2014, has said that the coal mined will be used for metallurgical purposes and the mining operation would reduce reliance on imported coal. It has said that 16.4M.t of coal for steel production are imported to the UK and Europe from the US each year and having a UK source for 3M.t would cut 20,000t of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
However, Lord Deben cited projections that the mine will in fact increase UK emissions by 0.4 MtCO2e per year – which is more that the level of annual emissions projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050.
“Phasing out coal use is the clearest requirement of the global effort towards Net Zero,” Lord Deben said. “We condemn, therefore, the Secretary of State’s decision to consent a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, contrary to our previous advice.
“This decision grows global emissions and undermines UK efforts to achieve Net Zero. It runs counter to the UK’s stated aims as COP26 President and sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities. The UK’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by today’s decision.”
Former British Steel chief executive Ron Deelan added that the coal mine is “a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry”, while University of Lancaster energy professor Rebecca Willis said that “there is no business case or scientific justification for this mine”.
Willis added: “It will harm the UK's climate credentials and do very little for communities in Cumbria where the focus should be on delivering on long term, secure and green jobs."
Plans for the £165M coal mine were originally approved by Cumbria County Council in October 2020. Since then, former communities secretary Robert Jenrick called in the decision and asked the Planning Inspectorate to carry out a formal evaluation of the scheme.
Planning inspector Stephen Normington opened a public inquiry in September 2021 and over the course of many months took evidence from environmental groups, stakeholders and the government. The findings have since been submitted to planning ministers, who are still considering the report.
What does the coal mine involve?
The proposed development is for a large underground metallurgical, or "coking coal", coal mine.
It would be excavating coal for use mainly in steel production – a key distinction in terms of environmental concerns, according to West Cumbria Mining chief executive Mark Kirkbride, who “fully supports” the phase out of coal for electricity.
The coking coal involved in the Cumbrian mine is used exclusively in the manufacture of over 70% of the world’s steel, with more than 1.2bn.t used in global steel production around the world every year.
The coal is ‘baked’ in a coke oven which forces out impurities to produce coke. Modern steel plants include gas treatment and capture to reduce emissions. The steel produced is used in the likes of cars, kettles and trains, as well as in the manufacture of wind turbines and nuclear power stations.
West Cumbria Mining's website emphasises that coking coal is “very different to thermal coal which is used to create steam to power turbines for creating electricity”.
This all comes against the backdrop of a push to remove fossil fuels from the UK energy system to achieve the net zero target, and the government has already committed to ending the use of coal for power generation by 2024.
In addition, the use of coking coal in steel making beyond 2035 is thought to be in doubt and the CCC has stated that it could be "displaced entirely" by then. If it goes ahead, the coal mine is expected to produce coking coal (for use in industry) until 2049, one year before the UK is legally bound to reach net zero.