Explained: Why the Cumbria coal mine is so controversial

Local environmental groups have been campaigning against the mine since its announcement. Credit: ITV Border

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has granted planning permission for what would be the first new coal mine in Britain for 30 years.

But why has the plan sparked so much controversy since it was revealed in 2014?

What is the proposal?

West Cumbria Mining (WCM) plans to open a deep coal mine on the former Marchon chemical works on the outskirts of Whitehaven to mine metallurgical or coking coal for use in the steel industry.

The mine’s application says that nearly 2.8 million tonnes of coal will be extracted per year.

How long has it taken to get approval?

The development was first approved by Cumbria County Council in 2019 and would do so twice more over the following years amid changes to the plans and protests.

In 2021, communities secretary Robert Jenrick decided to "call in" the application so that an inquiry could be held to explore the arguments put forward by both supporters and opponents of the proposal.

The decision was repeatedly delayed following the inquiry last year.

How many jobs will it provide?

The inquiry heard the mine would provide 532 permanent jobs, 80% filled from the local workforce, and support 1,000 jobs in the supply chain.

Why is it so controversial?

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

Opponents say the decision undermines UK efforts to reach net zero and sends the wrong signals to other countries about its climate priorities as it could create an estimate 400,000 tonnes of emissions a year.

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”.

Experts have also questioned the investment in an “1850s technology” to supply coal for steel manufacture as the sector looks to shift to cleaner technology.

Scientists and engineers point to warnings from UK steel companies that they will not be able to use the coal because of its sulphur content, which will mean most of it is exported.

How does this square with the UK’s net zero targets?

Gregory Jones KC, representing WCM at last year’s inquiry, claimed the development would be a world first in being a “net zero compliant” mine and help in the “transition” to a greener steel industry.

But WCM’s case was described as all “smoke and mirrors” by Estelle Dehon, representing South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC).

Ms Dehon said a “myth has been spun” that local mined coal would be used in the UK only, instead of importing US coal, as the raw material could be exported across the world and the “magic of mitigation” and off-setting did not exist in reality.

What do supporters say?

Those who have welcomed the decision say the mine will create jobs and opportunity in the area.

Mike Starkie, Conservative mayor of Copeland, said “the biggest announcement in generations” will “bring jobs, prospects and opportunity to the people of west Cumbria and the people of west Cumbria are going to be grateful for generations”.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...