Prime Minister Rishi Sunak handed restive Conservative MPs in England’s north a major win Wednesday, allowing the construction of the U.K.’s first new deep coal mine in three decades.
The approval of the Woodhouse Colliery in West Cumbria by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has been actively resisted by several Tory grandees who highlight the damage the decision will do to the climate and the U.K.’s standing in the world.
But the project also promises 500 jobs in the seat of Copeland, a key constituency in the so-called Red Wall, traditional Labour strongholds that backed the Tories at the last election, areas Sunak is desperate to hold in the next election.
Confirming the move Wednesday night, a spokesperson for Gove’s department said he had “agreed to grant planning permission for a new metallurgical coal mine in Cumbria as recommended by the independent planning inspector.”
In a bid to assuage environmental concerns, they added: “This coal will be used for the production of steel and would otherwise need to be imported. It will not be used for power generation. The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”
But an official from the same department said the decision was purely based on placating MPs in the region and that the government was hamstrung by the need to “prioritize political goals.”
Another senior Conservative MP said the decision was plainly aimed at placating MPs in the area as “there is no industrial or strategic case for the mine whatsoever” and “approval will severely undermine the U.K.’s climate leadership.”
Gove’s decision could be challenged in the High Court, with any appeal due within six weeks.
In an apparent effort to play both sides, his department announced Tuesday it would relax
planning restrictions on onshore wind turbines, ending an effective ban the Conservatives put in place in 2015.
The mixed bag of energy announcements underlines the domestic bind facing the Conservative Party as they try to cling on to seats in deindustrialized regions gained in 2019 without alienating more affluent areas where they are under pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The company behind the mine, West Cumbria Mining, has said the availability of domestic coking coal for steel making would boost that industry. But Ron Deelan, who was CEO of British Steel until last year, said the steel industry had no supply issues and instead needed investment in green alternatives to coal, such as hydrogen.
“This is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry,” he said.
Climate advocates more widely slammed the announcement as hypocritical, self-defeating and dangerously out of line with efforts to secure the climate.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the mine “a climate crime against humanity.”
In advance of the decision, former Conservative Cabinet minister Alok Sharma said approval would “damage the U.K.’s hard-won international reputation.” As the president of COP26 in Glasgow last year, Sharma brokered a deal with almost 200 countries to phase down coal power.
“Why should global emitters like China and India listen to us … while we’re now phasing it back in again? This decision simply confirms that the U.K.’s climate credibility on the world stage is in tatters,” said Lucas.
A protest has taken place at the proposed site of the UK’s first major coal mine.
Critics have said it would undermine climate targets and the demand for coking coal is declining, but supporters claim it would create jobs and reduce the need to import coal.
Dozens of opponents gathered to rally against the “deeply damaging mistake”.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Estelle Worthington, said: “Approving this mine is a really big mistake for the economy and the climate and for the steel industry.
“There are many other ways that we could be creating the jobs that west Cumbria needs.”
Source – Politico