Michael Gove has finally granted permission to for Britain’s first new deep coal mine in decades to be built in Cumbria. The go-ahead has come after an interminable battle to overcome resistance locally and nationally and has become a focal point – wrongly, in my view – in the ongoing row over Net Zero.
The central focal point for opposition is that this is incompatible with our environmental commitments. John Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, has called the move “indefensible”. Alok Sharma, an erstwhile Cabinet colleague of Gove and President of COP 26, said it will damage our international reputation. And Ed Miliband, the Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, labelled it a “terrible idea”, a subject on which he is something of an expert.
I know many ConHome readers are earnest supporters of the Net Zero target and will be concerned that this new mine will undermine the Government’s efforts to make the world safe for polar bears. Fear ye not, my eco-enthusiast friends. Gove has confirmed that the Black Gold unearthed will solely be used to produce coking coal for the steel industry. It will not be burnt in power stations.
This crucial caveat is one which the project’s opponents have long wilfully ignored. Whilst there are plenty of more eco-friendly alternatives to burning coal for producing electricity, there is currently no cost-effective way of forging steel without coking coal. The mine also only won approval once it was made clear it aimed to be carbon-neutral.
Based close to Whitehaven in Cumbria, the site should produce 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year. In 2017, we imported 2.7 million tonnes, mainly from the United States, Poland, and Russia. Cumbria county council took expert evidence before granting permission for the mine, arguing that it would help reduce global emissions since moving coal around the UK from Cumbria produced fewer greenhouses gas than hauling it across the Atlantic or Eurasia.
All this remains the case if, as the Climate Change Committee has highlighted, 85 per cent of the coal is exported to Europe. Since this mine is predicted to provide over 500 jobs and apprenticeships to one of the most deprived areas in the country, one can easily see why the proposals won either unanimous or overwhelming support from councillors the three times it was voted on.
That it has taken so long for them to be signed off can be attributed to two primary reasons. Opponents of the mine, locally and nationally, have used every trick in the book to get the project mothballed. The almighty stink that the climate change lobby is currently causing is a case in point.
But whilst it would be wrong to suggest that these worries come only from members of the anti-growth coalition. After the project was held up at a council level, it was “called-in” by Robert Jenrick, the then Secretary of State.
It is openly acknowledged by some of those involved that the Government has soft-balled granting approval out of a fear of bad head-lines first whilst hoping COP26 last year, and then whilst Sunak was attending its successor last month. It also hasn’t helped that we have had five (well, four, with two non-consecutive postings for Gove) Secretaries of State for the department involved since Jenrick took over the decision.
Nonetheless, with approval now granted, we can make a few comments about what it says about the Government’s priorities. Although a few free-market think-tanks may have been in vogue for seven weeks or so between them, the transition from Johnson to Sunak has meant the eco-enthusiasts have lost sway in Number 10.
In instead – if the appointment of former Onward chief Will Tanner, alongside the broader shape of Sunak’s government, is anything to go – are enthusiasts for levelling-up, the Red Wall, and cementing the Tories’ newfound hold over parts of the North and Midlands. Copeland – the constituency where the mine would be – is a crucial part of this, since it was won at the 2017 by-election from Labour in a historic victory that blazed a trail for 2019.
Red Wall MPs and the 2019 intake were some of Johnson’s most fervent supporters. At least 31 MPs from the Northern Research Group signed a latter last year demanding the mine go ahead. Copeland’s Trudy Harrison was joined by 2019-ers like Simon Fell and Mark Jenkinson in pledging support. Gove’s positive decision will be a welcome sign any Sunak-sceptics from above Watford Gap that he takes levelling up – and them holding their seats in 2024 – seriously.
Finally, this confirms a trend in energy policy that has been apparent since Putin’s tanks first rolled across the Ukrainian border in late February. Net Zero remains government policy. Rhetorical fealty is still paid to it. But it is not the sole, or even the most important, current objective in energy policy.
The market volatility of the last year has brought home how important energy security is. We are taking the Asda approach to energy production: every little helps. From Johnson’s push for nuclear, to Truss’s fracking fiasco, to Sunak’s u-turn on wind farms, domestic energy supply is rendering environmental posturing a secondary concern. Whilst the Government would obviously welcome these routes being as green as possible, lower bills will become before pleasing polar bears.
Of course, as I mentioned above, this plant will not be used for generating energy. But the steel needed to build those wind farms (if any are approved) will have to come from somewhere, and that will need coal. Better Whitehaven for that than Moscow.