The government has been condemned for approving a new coal mine in Cumbria – Britain’s first in generations.
The Woodhouse Colliery project, near Whitehaven, has sparked fierce opposition from locals and environmentalists.
Levelling-up secretary Michael Gove has granted permission, saying the coal will be used for the production of steel and not for power generation.
But the government’s own independent adviser on climate change has condemned the decision, which will allow extraction of the fossil fuel until 2049 – a year ahead of the UK’s legally binding target to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
The Conservative former minister Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, said it would undermine UK efforts to reach net zero and “diminish” the country’s global influence on carbon.
Under development by West Cumbria Mining since 2014, the undersea mine will be the first deep pit to open in England since 1986. It is projected to increase UK greenhouse gas emissions by 0.4 million tonnes a year, the equivalent of around 200,000 cars.
The approval was branded “shameful” by countryside charity CPRE, while Friends of the Earth said it was “a misguided and deeply damaging mistake that flies in the face of all the evidence” on climate change.
Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said Rishi Sunak had been exposed as a “fossil fuel PM in a renewable age”, who had “given up on all pretence of climate leadership”.
And Lord Deben said: “This decision grows global emissions and undermines UK efforts to achieve net zero.
“It runs counter to the UK’s stated aims as Cop26 president and sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities. The UK’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by today’s decision.”
The developers say it will create 500 jobs providing coking coal for the steel-making industry, which has previously been heavily dependent on Russia.
But a wave of objections following its approval by the county council in 2020 resulted in the plan being “called in” last year for a final decision by the communities secretary.
Today’s decision by Mr Gove brings an end to the planning wrangle but will spark renewed protest in the area
Green groups warn that the new pit will damage the UK’s reputation internationally and undermine its ability to persuade others to make sacrifices to tackle global warming.
Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said the decision was a “significant” setback for the UK’s efforts to meet legally binding targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
“This is an appalling decision,” said Mr Bosworth. “Approving this mine is a misguided and deeply damaging mistake that flies in the face of all the evidence. The mine isn’t needed, will add to global climate emissions, and won’t replace Russian coal.
“The market for this coal is rapidly disappearing as UK and European steelmakers recognise that green steel is the future, and this mine risks becoming an expensive stranded asset.”
Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr said the decision came just weeks after Mr Sunak stated his aim to make Britain a “clean energy superpower”.
“The UK government risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership,” said Dr Parr.
Lord Deben warned there may be no domestic use for Woodhouse coal after 2035, while International Energy Agency projections predict an 88 per cent decline in demand for the product globally by 2050 if emission reduction plans succeed.
But Woodhouse’s annual contributions to UK emissions will exceed the total projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050, he said.
Locking in the use of coking coal sends a strong signal to the market that low-carbon steel production via direct hydrogen reduction of iron is “not favoured by government”, narrowing the UK’s options for climate action, said Lord Deben.
The former chief executive of British Steel Ron Deelan agreed: “This is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry, which is not waiting for more coal as there is enough on the free market available.
“The British steel industry needs green investment in electric arc furnaces and hydrogen, to protect jobs and make the UK competitive.”
The CPRE’s interim CEO Tom Fyans said the decision was “out of touch” with the needs of Cumbria, the country and the planet.
“This absurdly retrograde decision will shackle us to the past at the precise moment the steel industry is transitioning to an environmentally sustainable future,” he said.
“Instead of grasping the opportunity to lead the world in a clean and green industrial revolution, here we are clinging onto the dirty coal that powered and poisoned the Victorian era. This shameful decision beggars belief. It will degrade the countryside, pollute the atmosphere and makes a mockery of the government’s legally binding climate commitments.”
The decision risks a fresh Conservative split, with Tory MPs including senior former ministers Kwasi Kwarteng, Robert Buckland and Tobias Ellwood having already voiced their opposition.
But at least 31 MPs from the party’s Northern Research Group signed a letter last year demanding the mine go ahead, including local MPs Trudy Harrison, Mark Jenkinson, Simon Fell and John Stevenson.
NRG chair Jake Berry hailed the green light for Woodhouse as “good news for the North and for common sense”.
“We must decide policy on the facts and it’s clear here we have made the correct decision,” said Mr Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen.
But Mr Miliband said: “This decision is no solution to the energy crisis, it does not offer secure, long-term jobs, and it marks this government giving up on all pretence of climate leadership.
“Waving this mine through further cements Rishi Sunak as an out-of-date fossil fuel PM in a renewable age.”
Downing Street today denied that the decision was part of a quid pro quo deal linked to Rishi Sunak’s U-turn this week allowing easier approvals for onshore wind farms.
A spokesperson for Mr Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said that the minister had followed the recommendation of an independent planning inspector, who concluded that the development would have “an overall neutral effect on climate change” with “no material conflict” with net zero targets.
“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,” said the DLUHC spokesperson.
“The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”
But Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron, MP for the Cumbrian seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale, said the decision had left the government’s environmental credentials “in tatters”.
“This decision cancels out all the progress Britain has made on renewable energy,” said Mr Farron. “Rishi Sunak’s government is trashing our country’s reputation as a world lead in cutting emissions. He does not represent the views of the public, who want green, clean projects.”