Plan for UK coal mine brings hope to some, horror to others

A proposal to dig a new coal mine in northern England is presenting a dilemma for the British government just as it prepares to host an annual United Nations climate conference

WHITEHAVEN, England -- In the patchwork of hills, lakes and sea that make up England’s northwest corner, most people see beauty. Dave Cradduck sees broken dreams.

The coal mine where the 74-year-old once worked has long closed. The chemical factory that employed thousands is gone. The nuclear power plant is being decommissioned.

To Cradduck, a plan for a new coal mine that could bring hundreds of jobs is a sign that “at least someone’s interested in the area” and an opportunity "for people who have got mining in their blood.”

Many scientists and activists consider the two-week COP26 conference a last chance to nail down carbon-cutting promises that could keep global warming within manageable limits.

“The U.K. sets itself out as a leader, but it’s building a coal mine, which is the most polluting thing that you can do,” Rebecca Willis, a professor of energy and climate governance at Lancaster University, said. “It sends a signal to the rest of the world that the U.K. isn’t actually serious.”

The proposed deep mine symbolizes a dilemma facing the British government: It aims to generate all of the U.K.’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 and to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also pledged to boost prosperity in England’s neglected north with new factories, roads, railways and other infrastructure that environmentalists say is at odds with the government’s green agenda.

West Cumbria Mining, the company hoping to build Britain’s first deep coal mine in three decades, wants to extract coking coal — a type used to make steel rather than for fuel — from under the Irish Sea. It plans to process the coal on the site of a shuttered chemical plant in Whitehaven, 340 miles (550 kilometers) northwest of London.

The company describes the project as a new kind of mine, far removed from the dirty, dangerous behemoths whose brick and steel skeletons dot the region's landscape. West Cumbria Mining says it will be the world’s first net-zero coal mine, with all of its carbon emissions reduced or offset by credits to the Gold Standard Foundation, an environmental organization. Plans show curved modern buildings that blend in with the surrounding hills.

Alexander Greaves, a lawyer for the mining company, said while opening a new coal mine might look bad at first glance, the Cumbria County project aims to be different be design.

“Showing these mines can be made by law…to capture greenhouse gas emissions and required to offset any residual impact…is true environmental leadership,” he said.

Environmentalists scoff at that idea.

“It’s blindingly obvious that the quickest way to stop these carbon emissions and to make radical changes — which we have to do in the next 10 years — is to stop opening any new coal mines,” said Maggie Mason, a local opponent of the mine. “The same is true for oil wells and gas wells."

Nature and industry have long vied for supremacy in this part of England. Whitehaven sits on the edge of the Lake District National Park, an area whose beauty inspired William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. The area also once was home to industries that offered hard, dirty jobs in factories and mines.

These days, wind turbines spin beside the sea — a sign of Britain’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which last year produced almost half of the country’s electricity. That share shrank this year, however, partly due to a lack of wind.

With the cost of imported natural gas soaring and plans for new nuclear plants moving at a crawl, the U.K. government is still considering new fossil-fuel projects.

In the North Atlantic, west of the Shetland islands, Shell and Siccar Point Energy plan to extract 170 million barrels of oil from the Cambo oilfield. Environmental groups are trying to force the British government to stop the drilling. Johnson’s administration is reluctant to intervene, saying “sources like Cambo are still required” to meet Britain’s energy needs as it shifts to a low-carbon economy.

“We need to transition our existing oil and gas sector to a decarbonized platform,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said last month in the House of Commons, accusing Cambo opponents of wanting “a complete eclipse" of the oil and gas industries "with 250,000 jobs vanishing overnight.”

In West Cumbria, the local authority approved the mine a year ago. The area’s Conservative mayor, Mike Starkie, says it will be “transformational.”

The British government, under pressure from opponents and its own environmental commitments, intervened in March and ordered an inquiry by a planning inspector. The inspector says he will make a recommendation around the end of the year. Then the U.K. government will make a final decision — well after COP26 has ended.

Local supporters of the mine believe they are the silent majority, at risk of being drowned out by environmental activists. Some rallied at the site this month, holding signs that read “Part of the answer, not part of the problem” and “Cumbria coke is the real thing.”

“It’s been very simplified in the press that it’s jobs against the climate,” said John Greasley, who helps run a Facebook page in support of the mine. “And, of course, the climate is going to win every time. But it’s deeper than that."


Lawless reported from London.


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