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Protests build in advance of West Cumbria coal mine decision

Penrith and Eden campaigners opposed to plans for a controversial new coal mine in West Cumbria are amongst the numerous groups staging protests across the county this week ahead of the County Council’s decision on whether to approve the development.

The Council had previously given planning approval for the mine but the developer, West Cumbria Mining (WCM), was forced to amend its application after legal challenges by campaigners.

Councillors on the Cumbria County Council Development Control and Regulation Committee will consider the amended application on Thursday 20th August. Although the meeting will be held virtually, Penrith and Eden residents will join protesters from all over Cumbria on the day for a demonstration in Kendal on New Road Common, starting at 8:30am – ahead of the meeting.

Campaigners are calling on the Councillors to fully consider the substantial evidence that has been submitted that, they argue, shows that the mine will not produce the promised benefits and will have far greater negative impacts than are acknowledged in the planning application. The mine is set to produce 2.78 million tonnes of coal per year for a projected 50 years. The burning of this coal will result in the emission of 9 million tonnes of CO₂ every year until 2074.

“The Council has said that job creation was its main reason for approving the earlier application, but West Cumbria Mining’s claim of 500 jobs for 50 years is another false promise for West Cumbria,” said Maggie Mason, one of the campaigners involved in the legal challenge.

“This mine will produce coking coal for steel making, but the steel industry is changing rapidly to use more environmentally friendly technologies that don’t need coal. The UK industry is already switching to electric arc furnaces using scrap steel, and UK and EU governments are also investing heavily in steel production using hydrogen instead of coal. Demand for coking coal is set to reduce significantly by 2030 and will definitely not persist for the 50-year life of the mine. In fact, West Cumbria Mining’s own expert has previously stated that there is an oversupply of coking coal.

“West Cumbria Mining’s claims about future demand for coking coal to make steel are simply not true. It’s actually very hard to understand how any developer could see a business case for the mine at all.”

Maggie added: “On top of that, WCM’s own documents admit they don’t know at this stage how much coal it would be possible to extract from the more challenging offshore seams, which make up most of the area they want to mine. It’s impossible to say for sure that mining would continue for 50 years, even setting aside the falling demand for the coal and economics of it.”

Campaigners also point out that economic benefits to the UK will be minimal. West Cumbria Mining is owned by Cayman Islands registered EMR Capital who would reap the (largely untaxed) profits.

Critically, opponents argue that the many disadvantages of the mine development, some of which the County Council acknowledged in its earlier decision to approve the mine, have been seriously under-represented.

These include impacts on tourism development and related employment opportunities. The conveyors that are proposed to move coal from the mine to the railway network, and the continuous loading facility, would affect the existing West Coast and Coast to Coast walks, which would have to be redirected into an underpass. The mining plan interferes with Copeland’s economic plans to extend and link these walking routes to attract tourists into Whitehaven.

Campaigners argue that emissions from burning the coal extracted at the mine should be considered, not just those caused by the mining process as WCM has asserted. The objectors have made the case that if the mine goes ahead, it will breach the UK’s obligations to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Evidence has been submitted to the County Council from Professor Paul Ekins, an eminent economist, showing that development of the mine would add significantly to global carbon emissions, contrary to what West Cumbria Mining has claimed,” said Ali Ross, Green Party member of Eden District Council and member of Penrith’s Extinction Rebellion group, who was part of the protest in Penrith.

“The developers claim that this mine won’t result in any net increase in coal being burnt, because other mines that currently supply the coal will close. In stark contrast, Professor Ekins states that the increased supply would lower the price, delay the necessary switch to lower carbon steelmaking and result in additional coal being burnt over the lifetime of the mine. Mines in the USA are not going to close because a Whitehaven mine opens!

“The County Council took some very shaky evidence as gospel in its previous decision and let the claimed jobs potential of the mine outweigh the negative impacts. The Committee is now obliged to think again and consider the hard legal and scientific evidence about the environmental and social harm that this mine will cause and how unlikely it is that the promised jobs will materialise. They have a chance to act for the long-term benefit of West Cumbria by refusing this planning application.”

Speaking for PACT (Penrith Action for Community Transition), Chair and long-term campaigner, John Bodger added “In Cumbria, we are at the front line of the climate emergency. We face devastating flooding which will only get worse and more frequent as carbon emissions rise. This development would lock West Cumbria into a dying industry instead of investing in the thousands of decent, long-term jobs that we need for a low carbon economy. This is an opportunity to move away from business as usual, build a future for our children and really build back better after Covid-19, as communities and future generations deserve.”

In 2019, the UK imported 6.5 million metric tons of coal mainly from Russia and the United States and exported 740 thousand metric tons of coal.

The UK consumed 7.9 million tonnes of coal in 2019, including 3 million tonnes in the steel industry, 2.9 million tonnes in power stations and 1.5 million tonnes in other industry.

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