Stop the Cumbria coal mine

"The 6th Carbon Budget , in SLACC’s opinion, undermines the assumptions used by Cumbria CC to argue that emissions from the ‘end use’ of the coal in steel making are zero." Maggie Mason from South Lakes Action on Climate Change details the challenges the group has faced in blocking planning applications for a new coal mine in Cumbria. 

Penrith coal mine protest
Maggie Mason

After a two-year struggle by Cumbrian environmental campaigners, Robert Jenrick performed a U-turn and ‘called in’ the planning application, but many people have been left confused by the counter-claims about coking coal, steel and jobs.  

South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) has led the ‘detailed’ planning challenge to the mine, with our lawyers persevering to get the implications of the 6th Carbon Budget considered by both Cumbria County Council and Robert Jenrick. Our Barrister Estelle Dehon explains the situation in an article.

From my perspective, the simple story of last week is that SLACC was poised to start Judicial Review (JR) proceedings in the High Court against Jenrick if he had not met our 11 March deadline.  Although we had persuaded Cumbria County Council to reconsider the application, West Cumbria Mining (WCM) had started a JR against Cumbria CC to try and insist permission was granted without considering the new information! 

Everything changed at 6.20 pm last Thursday. Jenrick’s letter to Cumbria CC started the process towards a Public Inquiry. Cumbria CC does not have to hold any more Committees to consider the mine. WCM has failed to prevent the 6th Carbon Budget being considered, and SLACC does not need to battle through any Judicial Review proceedings!

Given the pending litigation, I think that Robert Jenrick (and Boris Johnson) have made the only sensible choice. A Public Inquiry is a much less confrontational and more rational way of determining the planning application than litigation.

Unusually, Jenrick has given his reasons: “The Secretary of State has decided to call this application in because of the further developments since his original decision. The Climate Change Committee’s recommendations for the 6th Carbon Budget have been published since he was advised on this decision. The Secretary of State recognises that proponents and opponents take different positions on that matter, and considers that this should be explored during a public inquiry. 

“Furthermore controversy about the application has increased. Overall the Secretary of State considers that this application raises planning issues of more than local importance, and further considers that the limbs of the call-in policy relating to potential conflict with national policies in Chapters 14 and 17 of the Framework and substantial cross-boundary or national controversy are satisfied.”

Jenrick’s letter is a pretty accurate reflection of the call on ‘grounds’ we suggested to him, just as the Climate Change Committee’s intervention on 29 January reflected the first letter our lawyers sent to Jenrick. I was really encouraged by that but, as Jenrick says, proponents and opponents take different positions on the matter.

The Green Party has not always taken a clear stand on the Cumbria Coal Mine, and I would like to encourage members to explore the issues. An article like this can only give you pointers.

The County Council planners have argued that this is a carbon-neutral coal mine. The carbon emissions from the use of this coal in steel making, in other words, the downstream Scope 3 emissions, are key. 

Fossil fuel companies do not want these assessed as part of planning applications and West Cumbria Mining is no exception. Mark Kirkbride, CEO of WCM, has spoken very strongly on the matter in one of the Planning Committees. WCM consultants AECOM argued that ‘end-use’ emissions did not need to be considered in the planning application. Other proponents never mention them.

The Environmental Impact Assessment, however, is bound by the County Council’s own “Scoping Opinion” which, as SLACC reminded the Council in June 2020, said:

“The Environmental Statement should include detailed information about the nature of the coking coal, the carbon implications of its extraction and utilisation, including any assessment that may be required with regards to climate change and the current and future outlook in respects of demands/outlets”.

By October 2020, council planners had accepted that, saying: “I consider the mine has potential global implications in respect of its effects from GHG emissions” (paragraph 7.104, October 2020 report to DC&R Committee).

But, although the Officers Report accepted the objectors’ GHG estimate of 8.5Mt CO2e per year, the report concluded that actual end-use emissions would be zero[i] because:

  1. There will be no viable or commercial alternative to coking coal in steel making until 2050
  2. The amount of coking coal used in the UK and EU will be the same in 2050 as it is now.
  3. Coal from the Cumbria mine will substitute for coal in the US, where mines will reduce production by the same amount.

SLACC has argued consistently against all three assumptions, pointing out that the Council’s evidence on technologies for steel making was poor, much of it outdated, and asked Jenrick to ‘call in’ the application due to conflicts with national policy, and issues of more than local importance several times. How, then, has Robert Jenrick been persuaded that the 6th Carbon Budget might make a difference to the ultimate approval or refusal of the mine?

The unprecedented intervention by the Climate Change Committee includes the following: “The decision to award planning permission to 2049 will commit the UK to emissions from coking coal, for which there may be no domestic use after 2035. 85 per cent of the coal is planned for export to Europe. 

“Coking coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035, using a combination of hydrogen direct reduction and electric arc furnace technology to meet our recommendation that UK ore-based steelmaking be near-zero emissions by 2035.”

It is not simply that the coal won’t be needed and there will be no market for the coal. The new supply of coal, with lower transport costs and some local increase in price due to oversupply,  will delay and disincentive the necessary transition, cause additional coal to be burnt and increase the end use emissions.

The 6th Carbon Budget , in SLACC’s opinion, undermines the assumptions used by Cumbria CC to argue that emissions from the ‘end use’ of the coal in steel making are zero. The October 2020 Officers Report, for the first time, applied the caveat ‘if nothing changes’ to those assumptions, and now something has changed.