Notes on Cumbria County Council’s (CCC) October 2,2020 Meeting. Application 4/17/9007 – West Cumbria Mining (WCM) – Woodhouse Colliery
By Ciara Shannon
Having sat, sighed and scratched my head through this 7 hour virtual meeting, it is hard to understand why Woodhouse Colliery was approved, when West Cumbria is in a unique position to do something great with its vast renewable energy potential and is well positioned to seize upon the thousands of green job and investment opportunities that will come with building back greener and better.
Instead, 12 councillors (cross party) approved UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years mainly because of the 500 promised jobs and the potential of the coking coal becoming a new export opportunity for the UK and for an area in need of regeneration.
West Cumbria Mining (WCM) is hoping to export about £2.5 billion worth of coal in the first 10 years. Coke – the market and atmosphere doesn’t need and flies in the face of the UK’s net zero commitment.
Notes on the October 2 CCC Meeting – Woodhouse Colliery – Approved (Again)
12 committee members voted in favour of granting planning permission to Woodhouse Colliery, three were against including the Chair and the Vice-Chair, two abstained, and one was unable to vote. This was slight progress from last year’s unanimous approval.
While disappointing, the meeting was well chaired virtually by Geoff Cook and Paul Haggin did a good job, overall, in outlining different viewpoints on a complex topic. There were also public presentations from experts, locals and officials.
As an aside, I was a bit disheartened that there was only two female councillors and the average age of the committee was far older than expected. Councillor Nick Cotton tipped the average age downwards and asked good questions, but he didn’t vote against the project which surprised me. I am not mentioning this in an ageist or in a disrespectful way, but, it struck me that coal mining ‘back in the day’ thinking and a knowledge of fossil fuel businesses prevailed across the committee. This is understandable to an extent, as how many people really know much about alternatives to coking coal and decarbonising steel? It is challenging, difficult and complex. However, an overall lack of green expertise got my alarm bells ringing.
The question about the need for steel was not in dispute by either side, on the whole. But, I was concerned that councillors didn’t give more consideration to weighing up the project against new types of green jobs, decarbonising steel business models and the timelines of the scaleability of these greener technologies, processes and industrial innovations. (See some info in ‘Charlie’ post)
Perhaps telling was that very few councillors mentioned low carbon anything. Never mind the vital importance of net zero, nor the exciting opportunity of Cumbria taking the lead in showing the way. Plus, the bonanza bonus of thousands of new green jobs that Cumbria could reap – jobs that are already being created across the UK.
So why then did the Council think they had to choose 500 (or so) dirty jobs over no jobs at all? Where did the idea of no jobs come from?
It is now over to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to decide whether to call in the decision and make the final decision himself.
This is not the first time this controversial project has gone to his office, nor the first time the Council has approved the project. And likely, not the last.
Those opposing the plan mentioned the loss of ancient woodland, heritage issues, the impacts of climate change to Cumbria (sea-level rise and flooding) (and globally), a dangerous amount of additional greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, over supply of the metallurgical coal market, climate and technology timelines and possible seismic impacts.
Those that approved the project, said that it would bring significant local benefits to Whitehaven, Copeland and Cumbria in jobs and investment, at a critical time. The project would be a new and large export opportunity for the UK and it will be beneficial to the EU and UK steel sector. Key supporters include Copeland MP Trudy Harrison, Workington MP Mark Jenkinson, Copeland Mayor Mike Starkie and Allerdale Deputy Leader Mike Johnson.
The meeting happened following legal challenges after the Council approved the project in March 2019. The purpose of this meeting was to approve the CCC’s written recommendation that the project be approved, while considering planning conditions and the issues to resolve – all 101 of them. With one being to include a legally binding greenhouse gas (GHG) assessment commitment as part of the Section 106 agreement.
This is a first for such a project, alongside a production end date of no later than 2049 to recognise the transition to a net zero carbon economy. (Thought to self: 2049 – are you kidding me?)
One positive outcome of the meeting, was a recognition by the Council that WCM must consider indirect emissions – not just the emissions associated to the operation of the mine (as WCM & AECOM had before stated).
This bit of news that (Scope 2 & 3) indirect emissions will be considered as part of their (legally binding – section 106) GHG assessment was welcome news, as they weren’t being considered previously. This includes considering their customers’ processing and use of the products they sell. * Thanks go to Dr Henry Adams for his work on this.
If WCM goes ahead, the site work will start early next year (before spring 2021), with initial coal production starting ¬18-months from the start of construction. So, let’s say a start date of 2023 to 2049 (26 years) of 9 million tonnes of C02e each year = that’s equal to a huge 234 million tonnes of CO2e.
By 2049, presumably means it can keep producing until a few minutes before midnight to 2050 – the year we need be at Net Zero? But even before then – let me say it again – that’s 9 million tonnes of C02e every year, multiplied by 26 years or so.
Quite early on in the meeting, emissions, climate timelines and decarbonising technology timelines were discussed by Dr Henry Adams who strongly objected to permission being granted. You can read more details here.
Maggie Mason on behalf of South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) highlighted why “end-use” emissions did have to be considered, and why this meant that the proposal was contrary to planning policy and should be refused. See a link here.
I waited eagerly to hear about the substitution point which was key to the approval. And hoped for a clear explanation about the Council’s continued insistence that WCM’s coking coal will be a ‘benefit’ as it will substitute those of similar operations in the USA – resulting in CO2 savings from a shorter shipping route. The USA being the UK’s lead supplier of coking coal, followed by Russia and then Australia.
But, this point was not discussed in detail by councillors – instead it was substituted by waffle.
That said, it was good to hear Prof Paul Ekins expert advice on this mentioned a few times. With him quoted as saying that the proposed coal mine is in no way a substitution, as it will result in considerable additional global carbon emissions. Plus, an increase in metallurgical coal in the market will reduce the costs of it and thereby the incentive to develop and deploy low-carbon steel technologies.
Councillor Alan McGuckin was the only councillor to mention the substitution point when he summed up his voting rationale. Saying he supported the steel industry, but voted against the proposal as the coal mine was not needed. He also said if it doesn’t substitute for the import of coking coal from the US – it is “a disaster environmentally”.
Overall, there was a lack of clarity on the level of sulphur (capped it would seem a few minutes before the meeting to 1.6% (as changes had been made to the notes – as they said themselves). One councillor did ask a specific question about how much would the WCM High Volatility A (High Vol A/HVA) coking coal supply/replace for the UK. The Officers answered that elements of coking coal are complex, and it will depend on the “specification”.
Maggie Mason had mentioned this point in her presentation, and quoted the Officers report that admitted that WCM coal, even as restricted by a planning condition will likely have too much sulphur in it for British Steel to use as HVA coal. Therefore, it will not substitute for 100% of the equivalent coal from the US.
Surely given WCM’s expected high sulphur content and likely market sell issues, this should be leading to further questions about the viability of WCM’s business model? And that WCM’s coking coal seems not at all to be a substitute for the stuff in the US – what on earth is going on? (I am now really scratching my head).
Finally, towards the end of the meeting it was Mark Kirkbride’s turn to speak. As CEO of WCM he spoke confidently (as you’d expect) and by way of justifying the project, he mentioned at the start that the UK was in a deep recession – which was particularly stark in Cumbria. He was asked how certain was he that jobs will go to local people and while this was not answered, he did say that WCM will deliver over 1% of the UK’s trade deficit.
He said the project was ready to start and they were in the process of closing the funding. He stressed payback would be 5 years and not a penny of taxpayers money would be involved.
He also spoke about substitution, but at this point I was swapping my coffee for coke (Diet). In fact, I could have kept exchanging my coke ad infinitum. With a smoke screen in front of it.
“Of course it won’t be a stranded asset!”
Then (rather indignantly), Mr Kirkbride said the project wouldn’t become a stranded asset as the UK currently imports 5 million tonnes (I need to check this) of metallurgical coal per year, the EU is the second largest market globally and the market for metallurgical coal would remain consistent for at least 30 years or so.
He also said hydrogen was a distant ambition and mentioned briefly carbon capture and storage (CCS). When asked about methane, he said that the underground methane will be piped and bought to the surface and they were looking at a bulk air capture system.
Tim Farron MP gave a rousing presentation saying amendments made by WCM have been done because of the threat of legal issues and a judicial review. He also said that WCM’s claims that the mine will not make emissions any worse – are obviously false and WCM knows it. He then mentioned that Woodhouse Colliery undermines the Council’s own efforts for a Net Zero Cumbria and that Councillors must consider the strength of Cumbria’s natural resources and its vast renewable energy potential.
Another public representation that got my attention was from Dr Tim Jones who mentioned that the coalfield is heavily faulted. This means there is real potential for subsidence to occur as a result of the “mass removal” and creation of extensive sub-sea void spaces which could generate earthquake effects, which may extend onshore as far as the Sellafield/Moorside sites. Apparently, Sellafield have said they don’t have an objection to the project as there will only will be ‘some’ subsidence. But how much is ‘some’?
A further point of interest – was back in 2015, Cumbria County Council’s Planning Officers gave the go ahead for WCM to carry out “exploratory borehole drilling” onshore and offshore in the St Bees area. Apparently, WCM have already spent £12 million drilling bore holes and they have collected 4000 metres of drill core sample. In the process, WCM hit at least one methane gas pocket, one nautical mile from St Bees.
Councillor Hillary Carrick summed up the meeting well when she said she found aspects of the project misleading and that any project that has 101 issues to resolve – is of concern.
I couldn’t agree more. Many councillors said themselves that parts of the project were very complicated (and they are) and required specialist expertise in a number of areas (it does). One even said he wasn’t elected to do global issues but was elected for Cumbria. Another doubted the climate science (sigh), and then mentioned the UK needs its own steel security (a good point). Plus, the Mayor of Copeland quite angrily said that the people who were concerned about the project didn’t live in the area – the people in Copeland support the project.
But do they – has anyone else asked them?
When the Officer was asked if they had double checked the emission figures, the reply was they took a simple view and compared WCM to that of American mines. How is this proper due diligence?
Why hasn’t Cumbria Council got a climate person to help build knowledge internally and externally – as so many other Councils now have? Or perhaps as this is a global issue, why not create a different type of decision making structure for big decisions such as this that includes a cross-section of experts?
Following the meeting and to quote Jon Owen, Environment Committee Chair, Kendal Town Council. Lib Dem: “500,000 people live in Cumbria. Thousands of them put efforts in to reduce their carbon footprint, by flying & driving less, eating less meat, by recycling, by considering food miles. It feels like all that effort is wasted when 12 councillors can triple the county’s emissions.”
Jon also said that we know from the British Social Attitude survey, that older people, on average, are less concerned about climate change. Only 20% of those aged 65+ are either very or extremely worried about climate change – compared to 32% of those aged 18-34.
Can I strongly suggest that as climate change is an intergenerational and a deeply serious thing – that Charlie, Taylor and Sam from Workington (see ‘Charlie’ post) – talk to their parents/grandparents. And also think hard about the councillors you vote for next May.
Welcome to Whitehaven: Twinned with Papua New Guinea’s Emissions + A Larger Other
But folks hold on to your hat. There’s more.
When I think more about the 9 million tonnes of C02e each year – this is as big as a country emits. In fact, it’s the same as Papua New Guinea emits every year and is equal to 0.03% of the global share of emissions. I also note, that about 87% of WCM’s coking coal will be exported to the EU and 13% of its coal will likely be used for steel making in the UK.
Be they WCM’s own emissions or their customers’ emissions in the EU or UK – it’s a massive number of additional emissions for the UK every year and cumulatively until 2049 to take on. Emissions that will guzzle up Cumbria’s share of the global carbon budget ( of about 23 million tonnes) very quickly.
Frankly, the substitution point and the Council justifying the project based on CO2 savings from a shorter shipping route from the USA – is misguided, at the very least.
As the Race to Zero heats up (& it already is – globally, nationally, regionally and locally) and competition intensifies – you can almost see the sign as you enter Whitehaven: “Twinned with Papua New Guinea’s Emissions” – or some such.
Far worse than this, WCM’s emissions will increase the areas already substantial cumulative, historical emissions. Coal mining there first goes back to the 13th century when the Monks at St Bees exploited the local coal seams. Then in the 1840s, the area was a hotspot for both coal and steel. From 1914 until 1986, it was also home to Haig Colliery that stretched 4.5 miles out under the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea and ¬48 million tonnes of coking coal were extracted.
Add to this methane and the real and present danger of methane leakage from the abandoned mines in the area, which is likely to be substantial as the mines in Cumbria were known to be ‘gassy’ (lethally so). The worst mines for methane leakage are deep mines with older seams.
At a guess, historical, cumulative emissions would easily equal a high emitting country.
Now add that country’s name next to Papua New Guinea’s..
I don’t know about you, I am not sitting comfortably at all.
(Part of this blog is also on the South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) website as I am a SLACC member. See here. That said, I am objecting to the WCM in an independent capacity, working on the business case against it and collaborating with others).
Notes on Scope 3 Value Chain
- The 9 million CO2e per year number considers indirect end-use emissions, also known as Scope 2 & 3 (indirect) Value Chain emissions as labelled in the GHG Protocol. While approaches to addressing Scope 3 Value Chain emissions are evolving across sectors, it is encouraging to see BHP is thinking about this for their metallurgical coal. See BHP’s work on that here.
- About 87% of WCM’s coking coal will be exported to the EU and 13% of its coal likely used in the UK. This means on paper when registering their emissions – WCM’s EU related emissions will go into an “export category” in their ‘end-user’ breakdown and will be excluded in their UK total count. However, emissions are still emissions – regardless of the bucket/ country, they get counted in.
Notes on Oct 2 Meeting
- Here is the agenda and notes for the CCC Oct 2 decision meeting
- Councillors in favour: 6x Cons: Bowness, English, Hitchin, Markley, Turner, Wilson and 3x Lab= Cassidy, McEwan, Morgan and 2x Lib Dems: Cotton, Gray and 1x Independent: Holliday
- Against: Cook (LD), McGuckin (Lab), Carrick (Cons) Abstain: Bingham (Cons), M. Wilson (Lab)
Some Press Coverage of the Oct 2 Decision
- The Council felt they had to choose dirty jobs over no jobs at all – Telegraph (Oct 2)
- Cumbria coal mine: black out – FT (Oct 2)
- First new deep coal mine in UK for 30 years gets go ahead – Guardian (Oct 2)
- UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years is likely to be approved – FT (Oct 1)
Very Good Post Meeting Blog – ‘The fog of enactment’.
- Lessons from the Coalface: What the Cumbria Coal Mine Story Tells Us About UK Climate Strategy by Prof Rebecca Willis on GreenAlliance’s blog (Oct 9)