4th November 2019. Plans for the construction of Britain's first new deep coal mine in 30 years in Cumbria, in the north-west of England, took on new developments last week. The 165 million pound investment near the west coast town of Whitehaven was originally approved in March by the local authority, Cumbria County Council. This decision initiated protests from, amongst others, climate change protestors saying that if the UK was serious about climate change no new coal mining should be allowed. The Council ratified their original decision this week with a unanimous vote in favour of the project going ahead. In a parallel move, Tim Farron, a Member of Parliament in south Cumbria - not where the mine is - last week presented a petition in the UK Parliament from 1800 Cumbrians requesting that the UK Secretary of State recall the approval decision, and recommending that the project be cancelled due to the "climate catastrophe". Immediately after the Council decision the UK government rejected the Farron petition and handed the project back to Cumbria County Council - a green light for the mine's progress.
The coal from the project is metallurgical coal, necessary for steelmaking, and not thermal coal for energy generation. West Cumbria Mining, the owners of the project, have been careful with making this distinction. With 500 jobs potentially generated by the mine in an area that needs employment, local mayor Mike Starkie is a strong supporter. Climate-change protestors against the mine had lobbied extensively and had even attracted the attention of the British environmental doyen, Sir David Attenborough, to express his concerns over the project. Sue Hayman, the shadow (opposition) Environment Secretary, whose constituency borders that of the proposed mine, had not openly supported the project but had referred to recycling and waste management as a future option.
The debate around the potential mine has been interesting:
Messaging: by 2017 total energy production from coal in the UK had fallen to 2% from 40% in a period of 5 years and plans are in place to stop all energy production from coal by 2025. Thus opening a new coal mine in the UK seems incongruous without knowing the details of the project. The importance of messaging (communication) about mining projects is paramount. If the company doesn't tell their story then it is certain somebody else will. West Cumbria Mining has put a lot of very professional effort into emphasising their product as metallurgical coal and senior stakeholders and decision makers are well-informed. Mining Footprint visited the area in October 2019 and canvassed a few locals. The mine project was well-known but the distinction between the type of coal and its use less so - demonstrating that sometimes more time is needed to get messages across.
Steel Recycling: steel production produces about 7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions and 1.7 billion tons of steel was produced in 2018. Of this steel about 28% was produced in Electric Arc Furnaces roughly equivalent to the amount of steel recycled. The rest was produced in blast furnaces from iron ores. Recycling of steel doesn't require much metallurgical coal, blast furnaces processes normally do. Recycling steel has a much lower energy consumption (and lesser emissions) than steel produced from iron ores. But recycling can't satisfy world steel demand - there would currently be a shortfall of over a billion tons annually. Metallurgical coal is still required for new steel production.
New Technology: the steel industry is donating considerable resources to lowering its carbon footprint and "fossil-free steel" is an objective of many major manufacturers. Amongst many such programs, HYBRIT has received praise during the recent UN Climate Action Summit using hydrogen as an energy source. HIsarna from Tata Steel is another initiative aimed at reducing carbon emissions and making carbon capture much easier. The steelmaking industry is making commendable efforts to become greener but the one thing that most of these programs have in common is that the time required to implement is very long (decades of research and testing in most cases). Metallurgical coal is still a requirement in the near to medium term.
Steel as Part of the Energy Transition: steel is needed to manufacture components of infrastructure that we will need to help us achieve the energy transition to renewables. That seems obvious enough as we build more windmills, more solar power plants, hydrogen technology etc. etc. Steel is an integral part of the energy transition.
Whilst the desire to reduce emissions and control climate change is paramount, the pathway to get there is not an easy one. In many cases there are no quick fixes, and in this case the requirement for metallurgical coal is ongoing whilst researchers and industry grapple with new technology to reduce emissions. Opposing coal mining in general is an understandably popular political position but only if it is backed up with a viable alternative - and distinctions are made as to what type of coal is being mined. The proposed mine in West Cumbria will create a significant positive impact in the local economy there instead of exporting the mining benefits offshore to Australia or Indonesia. Coal mined under stringent UK conditions will satisfy British environmental requirements better than any other coal simply because the UK authorities will have oversight.
Given West Cumbria's long tradition of coal mining in a belt stretching from Aspatria to the Haig Pit in Whitehaven, the regeneration of the industry in the area should be welcomed.
Mike Parker, Mining Footprint Ltd.
The writer has no affiliation with West Cumbria Mining. Mining Footprint works to promote responsible mining and it's associated benefits. The writer does however have strong ties to the West Cumbria region through family and local communities.