In a surprising volte face, controversial plans to open Britain’s first deep coal mine in three decades are to be reconsidered by Cumbria County Council. The plans had originally been approved by the council in October and the UK government’s communities minister, Robert Jenrick, caused consternation when he refused to call in the proposal for scrutiny, leaving the final decision to the local authority. There were widespread protests, not least from his cabinet colleague Alok Sharma, head of the COP26 climate change conference. He was said to be “apoplectic” with Jenrick for not blocking the plan and he was appalled that work on the £165 million deep mine at Whitehaven could embarrassingly coincide with the opening of the massive UN summit in Glasgow.

COP26 will be the largest summit ever held in Britain. It will bring over 30,000 people and the leaders of 200 countries to Scotland to discuss the next crucial steps in tackling the global climate emergency, running from 1st to 12th November this year. It will be a showcase for Boris Johnson who in September pledged “The UK will lead by example, keeping the environment on the global agenda and serving as a launch pad for a global green industrial revolution.” If the PM is hoping to persuade the global summit to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, his agenda would be seriously undermined by the Cumbrian pit proposal. 

Cumbria County Council say that they have decided to review their decision on the mine because of widespread criticism and because circumstances have changed. A spokesperson for the council said "This decision has been taken because in December 2020, the Government's Climate Change Committee released its report on its recommendations for the Sixth Carbon Budget, a requirement under the Climate Change Act. The report, among other things, sets out the volume of greenhouse gases the UK aims to emit during 2033-2037.” It seems that there is now doubt about the economic viability of the mine if its output would be seriously curtailed under the new carbon emission rules, within a decade of opening.

Certainly, there have been extensive protests about the deep mine. Environmental campaigners had called for a judicial review against Cumbria County Council for giving the go ahead to the colliery and Greta Thunberg tweeted “This really shows the true meaning of so-called ‘net zero 2050’.” Over 70 major organisations and charities like the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, CPRE, Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and Care International wrote to Boris Johnson stating that Britain’s credibility would be a stake unless he intervened, urging him to stop the project.

The Prime Minister will be greatly relieved that the county council has decided to revisit the decision themselves. He had clearly found himself between a rock and a hard place on the issue. He desperately wants to fulfil his green agenda pledge, but at the same time he is conscious of his promise to bring economic recovery to the ‘red wall’ seats that flipped from Labour to Conservative to give him the biggest Tory majority in decades. The proposed Woodhouse Colliery at Whitehaven is in one of these constituencies. Indeed, Trudy Harrison, the local MP, not only took the Copeland seat from Labour, she is also the parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister and one of several ‘red wall’ Tory MPs who backed the coalmine and the promise of 500 jobs in an area that has been hard hit by years of de-industrialisation. On the other hand, Carrie Symonds, the PM’s partner, is a keen environmentalist and certain to frown on the concept of opening new deep mines. So, Mr Johnson has found himself trapped between two powerful women with opposing views and the agonising dilemma of opting for green policies or jobs. The role of the PM is never an easy one!

The company backing the Whitehaven colliery is the Australian equity fund, EMR Capital, who say they aimed to supply over 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal annually to Britain’s struggling steel mills at Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire and Port Talbot in south Wales. However, the vast bulk of the mined coking coal, around 85%, would be exported abroad. Backers of the deep mine argue that if it is stopped it could be the final nail in the coffin for Britain’s steel industry and the 24,000 jobs it supports? Coking coal is currently imported to keep our steel mills running and supporters of the Cumbrian deep mine say that there will be environmental benefits from preventing massive shiploads of coal from traversing the globe to arrive in the UK. 

On the other hand, globalisation has made it very hard to compete on steel production. China has developed a gigantic steel industry and is dumping surplus steel at below-market prices around the world. Britain imports around 7 million metric tonnes of steel a year. Most of our imports are still sourced from the EU, primarily Germany. However, it is hard to compete with China when it comes to steel, which is why the bulk of the 42,000 tonnes used in the construction of the £1.34 billion Queensferry Crossing was imported from China. Donald Trump tried to respond to the threat by controversially reopening America’s deep coalmines, starting a trade war with China and withdrawing from the international Paris Agreement on climate change. But Joe Biden signed America up to the Paris accord again within hours of becoming president and he looks set to phase out mining coal. 

Weeks after the main buildings at Longannet Power Station in Fife were demolished in a controlled explosion, marking the end of a long history of coal-fired power, it would be a grave mistake to allow deep mining to start again. The UK government announced its intention to bring forward the deadline for removing coal power altogether by 2024. Allowing new deep mines to be constructed, even for coking coal, is indefensible. The UK has successfully cut greenhouse gas emissions by 16 million tonnes in the last eight years and is the first major economy to pass new laws to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. That record must not be undermined.