The UK will build its first new coal mine in three decades at Whitehaven in Cumbria, despite objections locally, across the UK and around the world.
Michael Gove, the grading secretary, gave the project the green light on Wednesday, paving the way for an estimated £165m investment which will create around 500 new jobs in the region and produce 2.8m tonnes of coking coal per year, much of it for steelmaking.
The mine will also produce some 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, increasing UK emissions by the equivalent of putting 200,000 cars on the roads.
The vast majority of coal produced will go for export as most UK steelmakers have turned away from using coal, which is high in sulfur and exceeds their needs.
It is not known where these exports will go, as most European steelmakers are moving away from the use of coal and adopting green methods such as electric arc furnaces and renewable energy.
The government said the mine was possible within UK climate legislation, which requires the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with operations due to close by 2049.
In its report to Gove, the Planning Inspectorate stated that the mine would have “an overall neutral effect on climate change”. This, he said, was because the likely amount of coal used in steelmaking would be “pretty much the same with or without.”
A government spokesman said the coal would be used to make steel that would otherwise have been imported and not to generate power.
Ministers, however, are prepared for an almost certain legal challenge from those who say the decision risks violating that goal.
Critics said the announcement was cynically timed to placate Conservative MPs unhappy with the government for ending a moratorium on new onshore wind projects, which was confirmed 24 hours earlier.
Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said the mine was “not a solution to the energy crisis”, would not benefit British steel producers and marked “the death knell of any claim this government has on climate leadership”.
Instead, the UK should create sustainable jobs in renewable energy, he said, adding that a Labor government would make Britain “a clean energy superpower”.
Zarah Sultana, Labor MP for Coventry South, said: “The Conservatives are once again showing that they put the fossil fuel industry before people and the planet. Shameful.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas called the decision “a climate crime against humanity.” She said: “Rather than backing thousands of green jobs and a long-term sustainable economic revival, the government has backed a retrospective, climate-destroying, stranded-asset coal mine.”
The decision “cancels out all the progress Britain has made on renewable energy,” said Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader who is the party’s environmental spokesman and an MP for Cumbria.
Environmental groups said the new mine would be a costly and climate-damaging mistake.
Greenpeace said the UK risks becoming “a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership” and that the mine would do “absolutely nothing” for the country’s energy security because the coal it contains can only be used for steel manufacturing.
Friend of the Earth said the mine would become a “stranded expensive asset” and would not replace Russian coal.
Laura Clarke, chief executive of environmental law firm Client Earth, called the decision “inexcusable.” “It doesn’t make sense in terms of science, economics or indeed the UK’s legally binding zero emissions commitments,” she said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has faced objections from Green MPs within his party. The decision will be welcomed by right-wing conservatives for whom the mine has become a talisman.
Mine backers have been trying to get the project off the ground since 2014. It won local approval in 2020 and was given the green light by ministers in 2021. But for the past two years, the project has been plagued by planning delays as that the government rescinded its approval. as he prepared to assume the chair of the global climate talks ahead of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.
The UK government handed over its presidency of the UN climate negotiations last month to Egypt, a year after the widely praised Cop26 resolved to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. , an achievement that Cop President Alok Sharma warned was “fragile”.
An International Energy Agency report last year, commissioned by the UK government while it was Cop chair, found that no new development of fossil fuels (coal, oil or gas) could take place if the world stayed within the 1.5C limit.
Sharma said last weekend that he was strongly against the mine. He said: “For the last three years the UK has tried to persuade other nations to relegate coal to history, because we are fighting to limit global warming to 1.5C and coal is the most polluting energy source .
“The decision to open a new coal mine would send the completely wrong message and it would be an own goal. This proposed new mine will have no impact on lowering energy bills or ensuring our energy security.”
Philip Dunne MP, chair of the environmental audit committee, said: “Coal is the most polluting energy source and is not consistent with the government’s net-zero ambitions. It is not clear to suggest that having a coal mine producing coking coal for steelmaking on our doorstep will reduce steelmakers’ demand for imported coal.
“In contrast, when our committee heard from steelmakers earlier this year, they argued that they had gotten by long enough without UK domestic coking coal and that any purchase of coking coal from a potential site in Cumbria would be a decision commercial”.
Nicholas Stern, the acclaimed economist who has worked on climate, development and public policy, said the mine would be bad for the UK and the world.
“Opening a UK coal mine now is a serious mistake – economically, socially, environmentally, financially and politically,” Lord Stern said. “Economically it means investing in the technologies of the last century, not this one, and that is the wrong way to grow. Socially, you are looking for jobs in industries that are on the brink of extinction, creating job insecurity in the future.
“Environmentally, it adds to the global supply and therefore consumption of coal and releases greenhouse gases when there is an urgent need to reduce them. And politically, it is undermining the UK’s authority on the most important global issue of our time.”