Go-ahead for Woodhouse Colliery could help Rishi Sunak in a key seat — but it’s already riled climate-conscious Tory MPs.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak handed restive Conservative MPs in England’s north a major win Wednesday, allowing the construction of the U.K.’s first new deep coal mine in three decades.
The approval of the Woodhouse Colliery in West Cumbria by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has been actively resisted by several Tory grandees who highlight the damage the decision will do to the climate and the U.K.’s standing in the world.
But the project also promises 500 jobs in the seat of Copeland, a key constituency in the so-called Red Wall, traditional Labour strongholds that backed the Tories at the last election, areas Sunak is desperate to hold in the next election.
Confirming the move Wednesday night, a spokesperson for Gove's department said he had "agreed to grant planning permission for a new metallurgical coal mine in Cumbria as recommended by the independent planning inspector."
In a bid to assuage environmental concerns, they added: "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. The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy."
The department's reasoning document, seeking to explain the decision, said the proposed mine was "likely to be much better placed to mitigate" greenhouse gas emissions when set against "comparative mining operations around the world." Gove agreed that the development "would make a substantial contribution to the national and regional economy and provide significant employment benefits."
But an official from the same department said the decision was purely based on placating MPs in the region and that the government was hamstrung by the need to "prioritize political goals."
Prominent supporters of the new mine include local MP Trudy Harrison, former parliamentary aide to Boris Johnson
and now environment minister, and Mark Jenkinson, MP for nearby Workington and one of the Red Wall's most vocal outriders.
But while it might cheer one wing of Sunak's party, it presents a major problem for him among Conservative MPs who have spoken against the mine and see action on climate change as a vote-winning cause.
Another senior Conservative MP said the decision was plainly aimed at placating MPs in the area as "there is no industrial or strategic case for the mine whatsoever" and "approval will severely undermine the U.K.’s climate leadership."
Gove's decision could be challenged in the High Court, with any appeal due within six weeks.
In an apparent effort to play both sides, his department announced Tuesday it would relax planning restrictions on onshore wind turbines, ending an effective ban the Conservatives put in place in 2015.
The mixed bag of energy announcements underlines the domestic bind facing the Conservative Party as they try to cling on to seats in deindustrialized regions gained in 2019 without alienating more affluent areas where they are under pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The company behind the mine, West Cumbria Mining, has said the availability of domestic coking coal for steel making would boost that industry. But Ron Deelan, who was CEO of British Steel until last year, said the steel industry had no supply issues and instead needed investment in green alternatives to coal, such as hydrogen.
"This is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry," he said.
Climate advocates more widely slammed the announcement as hypocritical, self-defeating and dangerously out of line with efforts to secure the climate.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the mine “a climate crime against humanity.”
In advance of the decision, former Conservative Cabinet minister Alok Sharma said approval would “damage the U.K.’s hard-won international reputation.” As the president of COP26 in Glasgow last year, Sharma brokered a deal with almost 200 countries to phase down coal power.
While Cumbrian coal will be used for steelmaking, Lucas said other countries would not make the distinction.
“Why should global emitters like China and India listen to us … while we’re now phasing it back in again? This decision simply confirms that the U.K.’s climate credibility on the world stage is in tatters,” said Lucas.
Labour's Shadow Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband meanwhile warned that the proposed mine was "no solution to the energy crisis" and "sends a message around the world about this government’s climate hypocrisy —asking others to do as we say not as we do."