I attended West Cumbria Mining's (WCM) first open day in Whitehaven in 2014 with my Green Party colleague Geoff Smith (now sadly deceased). West Cumbria Mining was proud to present its plans for Woodhouse Colliery as an alternative to Sellafield for work opportunities. My initial reaction was one of horror at the fact that coal mining should even be thought of, but I understood little about steelmaking at that point. I hadn't even understood that coking coal was used. It was hard to find people who had any kind of alternative view of how steel could be made.
Over the coming years, I attended regular open days of West Cumbria Mining and kept a watching brief. As plans progressed, Allerdale and Copeland Green Party requested (and were promised) a cradle-to-grave analysis of the carbon emissions from the coking coal. In 2017, we thought we might get one – but what was produced was just an analysis of what might be saved in transportation, which of course pales in comparison with the emissions from use.
Now, of course, it's clear that even back then there were low-carbon alternatives being developed. The Paris Agreement of 2015 made clear that eventually emissions had to go down to zero, so business as usual for European steel producers was not an option. Most are abandoning blast furnaces and opting for hydrogen and electrifying steelmaking. Pilot plants are up and running and larger plants are expected to come on stream by 2030. This drive for greener steel is also taking place in China, Japan and South Korea.
West Cumbria has a long history of coal mining and of steel making. As both industries have declined, the area has become run down and in desperate need of jobs. Therefore, it is easy for local politicians to play both the tradition and the jobs cards, in their defence of this application, and to pitch this as a battle between well-to-do outsiders and downtrodden West Cumbrians.
Cumbria County Council has been left to make the decision on the planning application, as Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities, declared it a local issue for local decision-makers. This is a perverse decision (what more international an issue is there than climate change?). It means that, rather than risk a legal challenge for ignoring new evidence, Cumbria's Development Control and Regulation Committee will consider the application for a fourth time. Most importantly, this new evidence includes the letter from Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, which points out exactly how damaging the coal mine could be to our legally-binding carbon budgets and to global emissions.
Our task now is to convince the committee, by extensive letter writing, that there are viable alternatives to coking coal for steel production, and that there are realistic alternatives for employment on the West Coast. The Local Government Association has published research, Local Green Jobs – accelerating a sustainable economic recovery, which shows that 861 jobs could be created in Copeland, 1,170 in Allerdale and 1,802 in Barrow – far outweighing the 500 jobs promised by WCM. Given the uncertainty surrounding the jobs in mining, this seems an infinitely preferable option.