Protesters staged a protest against the proposed coal mine in Kendal. Image courtesy of Henry Adams.

Community fight against coal in Cumbria 

The battle over a proposed deep coal mine in West Cumbria is far from over, thanks to the valiant efforts of local groups and campaigners.
By Eoin Redahan    |      Published:  23 Sep 2020    |      Last updated:  22 Feb 2021    |      3 minute read

Now seems a strange time to approve a coal mine. The government recently refused planning permission for a controversial opencast coal mine in Druridge Bay, thanks to the tireless work of local campaigners, and the UK’s coal-fired power plants are almost down to their dying embers.

But the UK’s coal story isn’t over yet. In the coming years, coal will no longer be burned to generate electricity, but it'll still be mined to make steel.

It’s important to note that the coal extracted from the Whitehaven mine would be used to make steel rather than being burnt to generate electricity.

Clearly we will carry on needing steel to make things like wind turbines and other key green infrastructure, but there are ways of making it without using coal.

A pilot factory  for making steel without fossil fuels recently opened in Sweden, with a view to bringing fossil fuel-free steel to the market by 2026, and the Climate Change Committee has said that coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035 by the use of hydrogen and electric arc furnaces.

Research into and investment in such technology should be part of the UK government's green industrial revolution.

On 2 October 2020 Cumbria County Council decided to approve West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery – a mining operation off the picturesque St Bees’ coast and a processing plant near Whitehaven. 

The UK government decided not to "call in" the decision – allowing the new coal mine to go ahead. But in February 2021, following widespread criticism from campaigners and local groups, Cumbria Council decided to reconsider its decision citing "new information" on the government's carbon budgets.

St Bees Coast, Cumbria
Credit: Image by Darren Frazer from Pixabay

The new coal mine was first voted on by council in March 2019. Since then, many local people and groups, including West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, have piled pressure on the council, local representatives, and the government to reject the project and they will continue to oppose it. One of those who made her voice heard was 16-year-old Isabella Bridgman.

Lobbying the local council

After taking part in climate strikes in February 2019, Isabella got to know environmentally-minded people in her local area, and together they formed the Climate Emergency West Cumbria group. 

She has since played a big role in protesting against a project that could create 450 million tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime – the same as the total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

Cumbrian coal mine protest
Climate activists protest West Cumbria Mining's coal mine project off the St Bees coast.
Credit: Image courtesy of Henry Adams

When the mining company submitted its revised planning application, she organised a lobby targeting members of the council’s Development and Control Committee and encouraged her community to respond to the public consultation.

Along with other local groups such as West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, Keep Cumbria Coal in the Hole, and South Lakes Action on Climate Change, Climate Emergency West Cumbria made sure the council knew exactly how the public felt before the October decision.

“We asked people to submit comments and objections to the council prior to them meeting to review the decision”, she said. 

Thanks to the work of Isabella and other groups, more than 1,000 responses were submitted to the council. The backlash against the mine forced the council to push back the date of discussion around the application.

Importance of a green economy

To some, the project makes sense. It would create jobs and the coal extracted would be used to make steel, rather than being burnt in power plants. However, this ignores a host of other problems. 

The mine will generate an extraordinary volume of greenhouse gas emissions over its 50-year lifespan, long after the UK’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

Then there is the issue of future coal demand. As the Secretary of State noted in the Druridge Bay decision: “There is limited objective evidence that the demand for coal for industrial purposes will remain at current levels beyond the very short term.”

Furthermore, the seabed mining operations will compromise the rugged beauty of the St Bees coastline, the proposed processing plant buildings resemble an array of giant beetles, and construction could damage local wildlife, including an area of ancient replanted woodland.   

The project also blocks the way to a green transition from climate-wrecking fossil fuels to renewable energy. For Isabella, the promise of these new jobs comes at too high a cost. “It's really important that we have jobs,” she noted, “but they are being brought in a way that is not at all carbon neutral and not at all beneficial for our environment, especially during a time when it seems public opinion is shifting to being more environmentally conscious, more environmentally aware.”

She wants a secure future for those in her area, not jobs in a polluting industry that may soon be rendered obsolete. In that respect, the Woodhouse Colliery site itself provides a warning to the short-sighted. For more than 60 years it housed the Marchon chemical works before it closed down in 2005, leaving many jobless. In a few decades, coal will be but a smudge in time, but many in the Whitehaven area could be abandoned by an industry that no longer exists. 

A green and fair Cumbria

“If you want to have a just and green future, then we need to make sure that social justice is achieved,” Isabella said. “That’s why we need to provide jobs that are sustainable and green.”

A Coal Action Network petition calling on Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to stop the coal mine going ahead received more than 113,000 signatures. 

And now Cumbria Council is reviewing its decision, campaigners are hopeful that their battle to stop the coal mine may soon be rewarded. 

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