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. And 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.
Despite stiff local opposition to the mine, it originally received unanimous approval at a council meeting in March 2019. The Secretary of State refused to intervene after requests were made to “call in” the decision by various NGOs and West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth.
However, the council decided to reconsider the application following new evidence submitted against the proposal and a legal challenge taken by local campaign group Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole. Sadly, the revised application has since been approved, albeit with 3 opposed and 2 abstentions (from the 17 who voted) this time around.
Many local people and groups 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 is 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 after attending a Friends of the Earth Groundswell event.
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.
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, and the sheer weight of public opinion and new evidence submitted against the mine forced the council to push back the date when the application would be discussed.
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.”
It’s important to note that the coal extracted from this mine would be used to make steel rather than being burnt to generate electricity.
Friends of the Earth understands that despite recycling and greener methods for steel being developed, complete decarbonisation, especially for high-grade steel making, is difficult to achieve at the current time. Plus, we need steel to make wind turbines and other key green infrastructure.
That said, technological advances could speed up this green transition. For example, 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 Energy Transitions Commission believes “a complete decarbonisation of the steelmaking industry is achievable by mid-century” – 20 years before West Cumbria Mining’s proposed coal mine is due to close.
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 Bridgman, 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.”
Despite facing a losing battle to stop the coal mine, Bridgman and many other campaigners will keep fighting. At the time of writing, 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 has received more than 51,800 signatures.
The Druridge Bay decision shows what can be done when local people like Isabella unite to protect the environment. Let's push for the same decision in west Cumbria.
Join (or start!) a Climate Action group in your local area.
Join (or start!) a Climate Action group in your local area.