By Ciara Shannon
I’ve been to Whitehaven and Workington a few times now. They are about 8 miles apart and both are former mining towns in West Cumbria.
Initially, I was interested in the area having heard about the ‘Workington Man’ during the 2019 general election, but more recently in following the twists and turns of the £160m proposed metallurgical coal mine near Whitehaven – Woodhouse Colliery.
And, I was wryly amused that their design looks a bit like a cousin of the Eden Project – gone over to the dark-side.
Meet Charlie in Workington
According to the stereotype during the 2019 general election, the Workington ‘man’ is about 45 years old – a leaver, ex-Labour who more recently has voted Conservative.
Let’s call them Charlie (he/she) and Charlie’s family would have been involved in coal mining one way or another, as there has been coal mining in Workington for over 400 years.
In the 1840s, the town became a coal mining powerhouse and steelworks flourished from the 1870s. Workington then became one of the most important sites for UK steel production, until being decommissioned in the 1980s.
Following the loss of coal and steel on which it thrived, the whole area then faced crippling unemployment. The area has since changed as many miners left to find work elsewhere, retired or have long gone. Those that stayed are tight-knit, proud of their roots and deeply patriotic.
Today, many of them are employed in the nuclear industry in Sellafield or in other industries such as chemicals, cardboard, the docks, waste management and recycling old computers for export.
I’d say Charlie probably knows that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change and that clean energy is the future. But, they could be concerned about what skills they’d offer a green, ‘build back better’ economy and are worried about job security as Sellafield is no longer employing so many people.
Like most Cumbrians, they might have a deep awe of nature. On a weekend, they’ll walk on the fells or along the West Cumbrian coast where they see the vast array of offshore wind farms.
They might also know that Cumbria has one of the UK’s highest tidal ranges with significant potential for energy generation. Plus, with so much peat, rain and fast flowing rivers here – there’s plenty of scope for peatland restoration and hydro.
Younger than Charlie is Taylor (a Millenial) with many years of work ahead of them and they might have young kids at home. Younger still is ‘Gen Z’ Sam.
Both are far more environmentally conscious than Charlie, most likely concerned about climate change and interested and aware of the opportunities of a low carbon economy.
All of them will have a keen eye to the future and will be looking for quality jobs with a company that has a future.
I then question how many people in Workington or Whitehaven would want to go back to working in fossil fuels – financed by foreign investors who have little interest for the area, will pay under the median rate – producing a product scientifically known to cause serious damage to the atmosphere and reeks of the past.
First Deep Coal Mine in 30 Years
If given the green light (which we should hear about tomorrow), Woodhouse Colliery – will be UK’s first deep coal mine built in more than three decades.
If the mine goes ahead it will produce about 2.7 million tonnes annually (which has recently gone up from 2.5 million tonnes on West Cumbria Mining (WCM) website) of coking coal targeted for the European and UK market.
WCM’s coking coal will replace metallurgical coal imports mainly from the US, Russia and Australia. Imports that decreased in the UK from 1.2 million tonnes in 2018 to 1.1 million tonnes in 2019.
WCM’s emissions (including scope 3) will result in ¬9 million tonnes of CO2e every year. This is over 2 times Cumbria’s annual emissions at about 3.79 million tonnes C02e per year (BEIS, 2019).
From a possible start date in 2023 to 2049, this equates to a whopping 234 million tonnes of C02e.
Why then is WCM proposing and Cumbria Council about to approve again such a risky, white elephant with a big sign of ‘stranded asset’ on its trunk?
One of the key points (in my mind) is not an objection to the need for steel as the world needs steel to prop it up. But that WCM business model will likely end up as a stranded asset as it relies on a flawed projection that blast furnaces will be in use until 2049. They do not properly consider game changing technologies – such as hydrogen which will likely come on-line for steel, at scale, around 2030. Nineteen years before 2049.
Importantly, a move to hydrogen will place downward pressure on demand for metallurgical coal and prices for will go up – making it even more uncompetitive. This in turn will impact Woodhouse Colliery’s market and profits making the likelihood of it becoming a stranded asset substantive.
Decarbonising Steel Technologies
Decarbonising steel technologies can be put into two categories: Carbon Capture, Use and/or Storage (CCUS), and alternative reduction of iron ore such as Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) that use natural gas or hydrogen-direct iron reduction.
So far, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has suffered from 15 years or so of prickly UK policy support; including the cancellation of two major competitions at the last moment. While, no commercial-scale plant has been built here yet, this is set to change via the Government’s CCUS Action Plan (2018) and the £800 million infrastructure fund for at least two clusters, one by the mid-2020’s and a second by 2030.
The Government has already committed £350 million to develop hydrogen, and this could increase in January 2021 when the Government is expected to release its hydrogen strategy and award funding through its Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge.
Of interest, scrap metal is already being used in Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF), powered by renewables (and this process uses about half of the GHGs of blast furnaces). But apparently, there is not enough scrap to make this a viable alternative and whether or not to use scrap depends on the sector, economics and regulations. The UK produces (has) about 10 million tonnes (p/a) of scrap metal, but rather than keep it on these shores = 80% of it is exported to countries such as Turkey, India, Spain and Pakistan.
This seems to be a wasted opportunity – keeping our scrap metal here is something the UK should be taking more leadership on.
ii) Hydrogen Direction Reduction – H-DRI
In 2016, SSAB, LKAB (Europe’s largest iron ore producer) and Vattenfall (one of Europe’s largest energy companies) created HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Iron-making Technology) technology, to replace coking coal with hydrogen made from fossil-free electricity (primarily wind power) and water. A process called direct reduction will replace the blast furnace process and hydrogen is created by splitting water using electrolysis.
In a similar vein, Arcelor Mittal (the world’s largest steel company) recently announced a landmark (for the steel industry) Net Zero target by 2050 and they also plan to go down the H-DRI route, as well as using bio-energy, carbon capture usage and storage (BECCS) – as they see this as a way of providing carbon neutral steel. They think that smart carbon solutions such as CC(U)S are likely to happen sooner, despite the high costs.
Hydrogen storage – will play a very important role in future power and energy balancing, and in large-scale hydrogen production. In Sweden, SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall have started building a rock cavern storage facility for fossil-free hydrogen gas on a pilot scale next to HYBRIT’s pilot facility for direct reduction in Sweden. The storage facility is expected to be ready and operational from 2022 – 2024.
I was interested to read the UK’s academic climate experts (see below) point about cumulative emissions for this project. They said the mine cannot be justified until 2049 in the hope that they will then stop in 2050. GHGs remain in the atmosphere for many years and it is the total, cumulative amount of GHGs that counts. Cumulative emissions add up annual CO2 emissions over time.
Cumulative Historical Emissions and Responsibility
I’ll add to this point. If Cumbria Council were to consider the cumulative emissions of Copeland (the local area of the mine) going back to say 1840 – its historical emissions are massive. In effect, as Copeland has significantly contributed to the climate problem of today – surely, now is the moment to honour its historical contribution to climate change and clean up its act. Not agree to a new C02 spewing deep coal mine that isn’t needed.
For too long, the focus of historical responsibility and Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) has been at the national level, but it is at the local and regional level where important carbon related decisions such as this mine are decided.
It’s not just Cumbria – all former industrial Councils across the UK should think about their historical emissions too.
Excitingly, West Cumbria has the capability to become the UK’s green energy powerhouse, with its rich bounty of natural resources. But where is this vision? Who is leading on this vision? When will Cumbria’s Net Zero target be discussed more widely and then turned into a strategy and a plan? There are already loud calls to dramatically scale-up net zero in the pandemic recovery plans and Cumbria needs to consider its green recovery.
A Just Transition
As part of the green recovery, the council should consider its just transition strategy that seeks to secure and protect the future and livelihoods of local workers and communities and how they can best become low carbon.
Undeniably, employment opportunities are important to the area, but not jobs equalling 16,000 tonnes CO2e per year – per job (see below). When instead, 510 jobs can now easily be created through Cumbria’s vast renewable potential at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Across the UK, developing net zero skills should be one of the top priorities if the UK is to meet its long term climate goals and seize the opportunities provided by emerging clean technologies.
I hope that Cumbria Council will rethink its recommendation to approve this mine and consider more deeply the multiple historical, economic, social, and environmental risks while ensuring quality jobs, the opportunities of just transition to a low carbon future, and how Cumbria can benefit.
It is important that the Council considers these points now – long before the (non UK) private equity investors make their ‘exit’ and run for the hills in Asia. (See business case post)
And long before, the Council ends up fighting for their share of WCM’s remediation bond that protects the Council when the mine closes, but doesn’t protect the workers future.
Nor indeed – anyone else’s.
See my next post that gives an overview of the Oct 2 CCC planning meeting and decision.
- See an overview of the proposed project on tonight’s news – 19 mins in. Interviews with Prof Rebecca Willis and Maggie Mason.
- You can read here Green Alliance’s Case Against New Coal Mines (Jan 2020). Their report concludes that a new mine would hinder the development of low carbon alternatives to conventional steel production. What I also found interesting was the way the report estimated the annual salary remuneration against the commodity value of the coking coal that would be extracted. The report states that: “the carbon emissions would be around 16,000 tonnes CO2e per year per job for the lifetime of the mine. This compares with under seven tonnes of CO2e emissions per person per year in the UK at present, a figure which must fall to net zero by 2050. The carbon footprint of the salaries paid would be almost three quarters of a tonne of CO2 per £1 earned by the workforce (700kg CO2e per £).
- To understand more about Cumbria’s emissions, see here a carbon baseline report done by Small World Consulting.
- You can read here SLACC‘s second objection. SLACC objects in the strongest terms to the Council’s continued insistence on the “substitution myth” to justify WCM’s stance that the GHG emissions from the “end-use” of the coal in steelmaking can be ignored and that the proposed mine will have a ‘beneficial’ impact on global GHG emissions.
- SLACC are also concerned that the Officer’s Report continues to underplay the speed with which European steel-making is working to turn away from Blast Furnaces and a large number of blast furnaces will be replaced by DRI plants with hydrogen injection by 2040 (not 2050). The background information collected does not support 2049 as an end date for the mine.
- Evidence presented clearly shows that the production of steel in the quality and quantity that is likely to be required by society, will not require significant use of metallurgical coal in the coming decades. This means that: the “do nothing” and “do something” scenarios in the EIA are still wrong; that perfect substitution will not occur; there will be additional GHG emissions, and there would be a significant adverse impact on global climate change, which should have considerable weight in the planning balance.
- SLACC are also concerned that the Council’s case on the need for, and economic benefit from this coal and as a result the Council’s argument of wholly exceptional circumstances that outweigh the acknowledged harm to Ancient Woodland is also unreasonable.
- See here Dr Henry Adams (Oct 2) details on climate timelines and WCM’s emissions
- See here Professor Paul Ekins (Oct 1) who states (for the second time) that the proposed coal mine is likely to result in considerable additional global carbon emissions and will hamper the development and deployment of low-carbon steel technologies
- Here the Business Case Against the Coal Mine (29 Oct) – by Dunacan Pollard and Associates and Eden Works – framed around recommendations of the Task-Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)
- Importantly, here (30 Sept) and here (18 Sept) advice from top climate experts and academics who do not agree that placing a condition on development, requiring the mine to cease operation in 2049, complies with the UK’s legal obligations on climate change. Namely, the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement.
- They also say, the 2050 date for net-zero is the end point in a process, not a sudden halt. Emissions in the years leading up to 2050 are just as significant. GHGs remain in the atmosphere for many years and it is the total, cumulative amount of GHGs that counts. They are also concerned that the mine will damage the UK’s standing as a world leader in phasing out coal. This would be particularly unfortunate as the UK prepares for COP26 in 2021, a major objective of which must be to persuade other countries to turn away from this most polluting and GHG-intensive of fossil fuels,