County split over West Cumbria coal mine

Coal mining is an industry in decline, but councillors in Cumbria have just voted unanimously in favour of a new deep pit coal mine. In a region hard-hit by austerity, the jobs offered by West Cumbria Mining won over the council, who put environmental concerns to one side. We spoke to campaigners from the region about the decision.

The old Marchon Chemicals site in Whitehaven, where the new mine will be based

Kate Dickinson

A planning application has been approved for a new deep pit coal mine in Cumbria, the first such site to be given the green light in more than 30 years.

With cleaner, greener energies on the rise, coal mining is an industry in decline. The UK’s last deep pit mine (Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire) closed in 2015. In 2017, only around 1,000 people were employed in the surface and deep coal mining industries, compared to more than one million in the 1920s, according to Statista. 

However, on Tuesday (19 March), to the shock and anger of environmental campaigners, Cumbria County Council voted in favour of a new coal mine, set to begin production in two years.

Woodhouse Colliery will dig out coking coal – also known as metallurgical coal, which is used exclusively in steel production – from beneath the sea floor off the coast of West Cumbria, based on the site of the disused Marchon Chemical Works in Whitehaven. The company behind the plan, West Cumbria Mining, says it will extract 2.5 million tonnes of coal every year at the site to supply UK and European steel-making coal plants.

An image of the planned mine near Whitehaven

West Cumbria Mining Company

An image of how the mine could look

‘Need for coking coal and jobs outweighed concerns about climate change’

No party has overall control of Cumbria County Council and it is currently led by a Labour-Lib Dem alliance; all councillors voted unanimously in favour of the new mine, stating that the creation of new jobs outweighs any negative effects on the environment. West Cumbria Mining claims that 500 direct jobs will be created from the mine, along with around 2,000 across the supply chain once the plant is up and running.

Liberal Democrat councillor Geoff Cook admitted that “it wasn’t an easy decision”, but explained: “We felt that the need for coking coal, the number of jobs on offer and the chance to remove contamination outweighed concerns about climate change and local amenity. We now hope that West Cumbria Mining go on to be successful in obtaining their environmental permits and attract the investment they need to make this work."

The news has shocked people around the country and environmental campaigners have expressed their outrage on social media, describing the news as “dismal” and “wilfully damaging”. Gwen Harrison, who was live tweeting the vote, said: “Cumbrian coal mine application vote – approved unanimously, by labour, lib dem and tory councillors. How can this shower be in charge of something so big? Shame on you all.”

For anyone still clinging on to the idea that the lib dems are doing something serious about climate change, then cling on no longer. Along with labour & Tories they just voted in favour of new Cumbrian coal mine

— Gwen Harrison (@harrison_gwen) 19 March 2019

Jill Perry from the Allerdale and Copeland Green Party, based in the region just north of the planned mine, told Green World: “It wasn't a surprise that the project got the go-ahead but it was a shock that it was unanimous. Yet again I'm disappointed by the lack of forward thinking in Cumbrian politicians, they have not engaged with campaigners at all.”

Significant climate change concerns

Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), presented evidence to the council against the mine, stating that the uses planned for the coal extracted at Woodhouse Colliery – steel and cement production – would lead to emissions of over nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) every year for the 50 years that the mine is intended to be operational.

Writing on the SGR website, Parkinson noted the recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change, which warned of the dangers of even a 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures. ‘The report… highlighted our vulnerabilities even to relatively modest levels of climate change [and] showed that efforts to reduce carbon pollution need to be stepped up rapidly, with approximately a decade left for the world to take transformative action. This action would need to include major changes in the iron, steel and cement industries.’

Parkinson also noted concerns about the continued growth of steel production predicted by West Cumbria Mining as part of their planning application, saying that a move to a more circular economy will need to become the norm in the future: ‘This would mean a marked increase in iron and steel recycling rates – as melting scrap requires much less energy than using virgin iron ore – and also much greater use of long-lived products made from lower carbon materials.’

West Cumbria Mining maintains that its ‘modern’ techniques are a far cry from the dirty collieries of old. It also says it has committed to transporting no coal by road in order to minimise impact on the local environment and residents, and that its product would help to reduce transport emissions by replacing coal imported from further afield (namely Russia, the USA and Australia, where most of the UK and Europe’s coking coal currently comes from).

‘The members didn’t listen to anything. I believe they’d already made up their mind to say yes.’

Green World spoke to Maggie Mason, Labour Party member and former planning officer at Cumbria County Council, who said that the planning committee had underestimated the climate impacts of the mine: “They half hope the coal is all going to go overseas so it won’t be part of the UK’s climate carbon budget”.

According to Mason, the planning officer in charge at the council meeting said he was uncomfortable about the climate change impacts, “but the members were implacable, they didn’t listen to anything. I believe they’d already made up their mind to say yes.”

Mason explained that the planning application approved this week only focused on the onshore part of the mine: ‘We weren’t allowed to say anything at all about the undersea extraction, only the onshore development.” However, she claimed that West Cumbria Mining ignored this rule, presenting its job creation evidence “for the entire scheme, both onshore and offshore… You can’t get 500 jobs for 50 years from the amount of coal that there is actually under the ground onshore, which was the subject of the planning permission.

“If you were talking about everything offshore as well, we would have been talking about the chemical and radioactive waste on the seabed, the huge risk of earthquakes, the impact on the marine conservation zone and spawning salmon. We weren’t allowed to discuss any of that – but they were able to mention the jobs.”


Perry also noted: “We spent a lot of time learning about the steel industry and trying to get a cradle to grave CO2 assessment from the company, which they never provided.”

Mason pointed out the irony of Cumbria councillors and MPs putting their weight behind calls for more investment in flood defences, as climate change brings increasing episodes of extreme wet weather to the region – while supporting business decisions with a significant environmental impact. Conservative MP for Copeland, Trudy Harrison, for instance, said she "wholeheartedly" endorsing the mine and the “huge” investment it will bring to the area.

On the day of the vote by Cumbria County Council, Tim Farron, former Lib Dem leader and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, was in Westminster arguing for “urgent investment” in flood defences. Commenting on the decision that was taking place in his home county at the same time, Farron told Green World: "I am extremely disappointed and surprised by this decision. Cumbria has so many renewable resources to provide energy – water, wind and solar – and we should most definitely not be taking the backwards step of opening a new coal mine.

"I am very clear that fossil fuels should stay in the ground and that we should invest fully in zero carbon energy instead and lower carbon methods of producing steel. I understand the economic challenges on the west coast that has put pressure on the county council to make this decision, but this does not make such an environmentally backward decision acceptable."

Cumbria hard-hit by austerity

The environment is not the only consideration in the minds of many Cumbrians. Those in favour of the mine have tended to focus on the job creation aspect, with West Cumbria Mining claiming that it will bring with it 500 new jobs, 80 per cent of which it will try to fill from the local area. Cumbria has been hard-hit by austerity, West Cumbria in particular. Unemployment rates in Allerdale (4.0%), Barrow (4.4%) and Copeland (4.3%) are higher than nationally, according to a 2018 labour market briefing from Cumbria County Council.

The Whitehaven, Workington and Copeland districts are “desperate for any jobs, whether it’s mining, waste, anything. There is a powerful argument from the people there that they need an end to austerity,” said Mason.

And the situation is complicated by the long history of coal mining in the region. Many still remember the days of the Haig Colliery in Whitehaven, the last deep pit in Cumbria, which was closed in 1986 with the loss of 3,500 jobs. According to Mason, “there were ex-miners picking up the planning application that felt very keenly that this is what they needed”.

Perry concurred: “Because of the jobs and diversification issue, and the fact that it was for coking coal for the steel industry, it was hard to campaign against it.”

Haig Colliery in Whitehaven in 1986, the year it was shut down

So what’s next?

While Farron maintained his outrage at the decision, it remains to be seen whether he will get behind a campaign to prevent the mine from being further developed. Other Cumbrian MPs have given their outright support for the plan, and it has received backing from Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade.

For Perry, the next step may be a Judicial Review. “Given the recent decision of the High Court that the government advice to local authorities on fracking was illegal because it ignored the latest evidence on climate change, and the Friends of the Earth challenge to the third runway at Heathrow, I think it is extremely likely that this decision, too, may be taken to Judicial Review.”

Whatever happens on a legal level, Mason says, “there’ll be a fight here. The trouble is in Cumbria generally, there’s a huge amount of denial about climate change. A lot of our cabinet members deny climate change at all. So will there be an outcry? The Extinction Rebellion people are absolutely livid, and there were school strikers campaigning outside the council offices on the Friday before the vote to make their feelings heard.

"But the population here is very much split – those of us that can see what’s coming, and we’re terrified for our grandchildren, and those who say ‘we can’t manage without steel’.”