In an English town, locals say new mining jobs must meet climate targets ahead of the COP26 summit, creating a dilemma for Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Then a few years ago, a new prospector in Whitehaven set up shop with a plan for a nearby wasteland: to sink Britain’s first new deep coal pit in 30 years.
The ensuing battle over planning permission is pitting local politicians who say it will create jobs and provide a local source of coking coal to make steel. For the British government, it’s a strange side show as it prepares to host the UN COP26 climate-change conference starting October 31.
The UK has set ambitious climate-change targets and is urging other countries to do the same. It has drastically cut the share of coal-generated electricity, which has helped it reduce its carbon emissions. The Whitehaven mine does not directly represent a retreat from that push, as it will produce coal with special properties for use in steelmaking.
Still, environmental campaigners have cited the Whitehaven mine as an example of governments talking big on climate but failing to act. The British government has delayed a final decision on the mine until after the COP26 summit.
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Chris Stark, chief executive of Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on its climate goals, says any approval of a new coal project “is clearly a wrong message, and it looks like a mess.” Is.” US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is among others who have criticized the development.
Whitehaven’s local politicians are desperate. The pale pastel-colored buildings that make up the 17th-century town center are filled with boarded-up shops. After the closure of the mines, the silk factory closed, then the chemical factory.
Most of the good jobs locally are in the nearby nuclear-disruption site. For Mayor Mike Starkey, opening a mine would create 500 jobs in the area and attract some investment. He is internationally condemned.
“We’ve got senators in America telling us we shouldn’t open coal mines while selling us our coal,” he said, referring to Mr. Kerry.
The new mine will not move the dial on climate change, Mr Starkey said. “It’s not even registered in terms of climate change around the world. It’s like a hair on a golden retriever.”
In October, an independent planning inspector will visit the abandoned chemical plant on the edge of town where the new mine will sink. Protests from environmental groups are expected.
Claire Kellett, a retiree who helps a local Facebook group drive support for the mine, expects a counter-protest. She wishes to assemble a choir at the site and sing “Coal” to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”.
The debate presents a conundrum for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose electoral success was built by wooing blue-collar votes in post-industrial cities with the promise of jobs and investment. Whitehaven sits in the Copeland district, which changed from the opposition Labor Party to Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party in 2017.
That year, West Cumbria Mining Limited, backed by Australian private-equity conglomerate EMR Capital, applied for permission to plan to exploit coal off the coast of Whitehaven. Three times, the local county council supported the plan. But after protests from environmental groups, the government intervened. A public inquiry is underway on the proposal and a government minister will take a final call on the matter.
West Cumbria Mining says it will be a carbon-neutral mine, which will offset or capture any carbon released from the mining process. In a public inquiry, the company stated that sourcing coal from the UK for British steel production was more environmentally friendly than shipping from abroad. The mine will operate by 2049 and produce 65 million tonnes of metallurgical coal.
In a regulatory filing, West Cumbria Mining said it had a “reasonable expectation” that the mine would get the green light. It expects a final government decision by March. A spokesperson declined to comment further.
Environmentalists question the net-zero claim. South Lakes Action on Climate Change, a local group opposing the mine, says it does not take into account the climate impact of burning coal, only emissions from it. Furthermore, as steel producers move away from using coking coal, domestic demand for coal will fall, it argues.
“For young people, 2021 has better life prospects than if they were in the coal industry,” said Maggie Mason, a SLACC coordinator who advocates for investment in renewable or tourism industries.
Gail Stevens, 59, a Whitehaven resident, also said she would love to take Whitehaven to tourism. “Is a new coal mine the best we can do with Georgian[-era] gem city?”
Britain’s economic growth was driven by coal. Then in the 1980s, then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher closed the coal mines after a long standoff with trade unions. According to government figures, coal-fired electricity generation in 2020 provided less than 2% of the UK’s electricity, which has once been the dominant fuel for electricity. This decline has been a major factor in cutting UK greenhouse emissions by 44% over the past three decades.
In Whitehaven, there are scattered remnants of the heyday of coal. The most prominent symbol is a disused Blue Mine Head atop an old brick colliery on a hill above the city.
Dave Cradack, 74, a former miner standing on a garbage dump at the site of the proposed mine, recalled the devastation of the pit closure. He hopes that a new one will open soon. “My brother has put his name down for a job there,” he said. “And she’s 67.”
This local enthusiasm is linked to national policy. The UK has set itself one of the most ambitious climate goals in the world. Its goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. It is on track to meet the targets in the short term, say experts.
Eliminating coal power was the easy part, said Mr. Stark, a climate change adviser, because the changes didn’t really affect voters. Now the government is faced with the daunting task of changing the consumption patterns of the people and directing big money into green industries.
Several patrons of the Whitehaven harbour-front pub said they wanted the mine regardless of the climate impact. Barman said the only locals who wanted to stop the mine were in the wealthier parts of the neighboring Lake District.
Nicholas Cowley, who works for the National Health Service, said he wouldn’t mind working in the mine if he was paid better than his current job.
Joseph Ghouba, 33, who works at a local nuclear plant and is an elected councillor, said he would have to support the mine, even if he had reservations, because of the lack of other local employment opportunities.
“When environmentalists say you can’t have a mine because it’s bad for the environment, I say ‘What can we have?’ And at the moment there is nothing,” he said.
—Sarah MacFarlane contributed to this article.
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The lowest picture in the article shows local supporters of the mining project. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified them as members of West Cumbria Mining in the photo caption. (corrected on 28 September)
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