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Gove stokes environmental anger by approving first new coal mine in 30 years

Demonstrators outside the site near Whitehaven, Cumbria (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Demonstrators outside the site near Whitehaven, Cumbria (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove has provoked anger from environmental campaigners by approving a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria.

He granted planning permission for what would be the first new site in the UK in 30 years after years of delay from the Government.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said the coal will be used for the production of steel and not for power generation.

Friends of the Earth described it as an “appalling decision” that will damage the fight against the climate crisis while not replacing Russian coal.

Supporters of the coking coal mine on the edge of Whitehaven in Cumbria, which is expected to extract nearly 2.8 million tones per year, say it will create around 500 jobs.

DLUHC said Mr Gove “agreed to grant planning permission for a new metallurgical coal mine in Cumbria as recommended by the independent planning inspector”.

“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,” a statement read.

“The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”

Conservative peer Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee which advises the Government, condemned the decision as undermining UK efforts to reach net zero.

“The UK’s hard-fought global influence on climate is diminished by today’s decision,” he said.

He said it also “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities”

Labour shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said it 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“Waving this mine through further cements Rishi Sunak as an out of date fossil fuel PM in a renewable age,” the MP said.

The decision comes a little over a year after the UK hosted the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where it lobbied other countries to “consign coal to history”.

The move also threatens to anger some Conservative MPs, with former cabinet minister Alok Sharma among those who have pleaded for the mine to be blocked.

Mr Sharma, who was Cop26 president, warned at the weekend that it would “not only be a backward step for UK climate action but also damage the UK’s hard-won international reputation”.

On Wednesday, Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth said: “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 planning inspector who recommended the site’s approval wrote that the development would “have an overall neutral effect on climate change”.

Stephen Normington said the amount of coal used in steel making would be “broadly the same” with or without the mine.

“Consequently, I consider that the proposed development would have a broadly neutral effect on the global release of GHG (greenhouse gas) from coal used in steel making whether or not end use emissions are taken into account,” he wrote.

Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr said: “The UK Government risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership.

“How can we possibly expect other countries to rein in fossil fuel extraction when we’re building new coal mines here?”

Tom Fyans, interim chief executive at countryside charity CPRE, described the decision as “absurdly retrograde”.

“Instead of grasping the opportunity to lead the world in a clean and green industrial revolution, here we are clinging on to the dirty coal that powered and poisoned the Victorian era,” he said.

“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 people of Cumbria are crying out for good jobs and a stable future.”

There has been local opposition to the mine too, but Mike Starkie, the Conservative mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, said he was “absolutely over the moon” with the decision, which he hailed as “the biggest announcement in generations”.

“It is going to bring jobs, prospects and opportunity to the people of west Cumbria and the people of west Cumbria are going to be grateful for generations,” he said.

But the Liberal Democrats criticised the Government for approving the “deeply damaging” mine.

Environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “This decision cancels out all the progress Britain has made on renewable energy. The Government’s environmental credentials are yet again left in tatters.

“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.”