LONDON – Britain’s Conservative government on Wednesday approved the U.K.’s first new coal mine in three decades, a decision condemned by environmentalists as a leap backwards in the fight against climate change.
Hours earlier, the government had reversed a ban on building new onshore windfarms in Britain. Opponents called that announcement a cynical attempt to offset criticism of the mine decision.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove decided the mine in the Cumbria area of northwest England would have “an overall neutral effect on climate change and is thus consistent with government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change," the government said.
It said coal from the mine would be used to make steel — replacing imported coal — rather than for power generation.
The mine will extract coking coal, the type used in steelmaking, from under the Irish Sea and process it on the site of a shuttered chemical plant in Whitehaven, a town 340 miles (550 kilometers) northwest of London.
Supporters say the mine will bring much-needed jobs to an area hard hit by the closure of its mines and factories in recent decades.
Opponents say the mine is a major blow to the U.K.’s status as a world leader in replacing polluting fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. They argue it will undermine global efforts to phase out coal and make it harder for Britain to meet its goals of generating 100% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
John Gummer, a Conservative politician who heads the Climate Change Committee, a government advisory body, said the decision “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the U.K.’s climate priorities”
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace U.K., said “the U.K. government risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership. How can we possibly expect other countries to rein in fossil fuel extraction when we’re building new coal mines here?”
Britain has taken steps to bolster its domestic energy supply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil and gas prices soaring. The U.K. imports little Russian oil or gas, but its lightly regulated energy market leaves customers highly exposed to price fluctuations.
Many homes and businesses have seen bills double or triple in the past year, though a government price cap — due to end in April — has prevented even steeper hikes.
The invasion of Ukraine has made countries across Europe reconsider plans to cut their use of fossil fuels. Britain has also approved more North Sea oil and gas drilling, while the Czech Republic reversed a plan to stop coal mining in a key region.
France recently restarted a shuttered coal plant, abandoning an earlier vow by President Emmanuel Macron to close all coal-burning plants in the country by the end of this year.
The mine decision came a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak lifted a ban on building new windfarms on British soil.
Wind produced more than a quarter of the U.K.’s electricity in 2021. But the Conservative government has since 2015 opposed new wind turbines on land because of local opposition. A majority of Britain’s wind farms are at sea.
While running for the Conservative Party's leadership in the summer, Sunak pledged to keep the ban. But amid growing calls for change from Conservative lawmakers, the government said Tuesday it could allow wind farms in areas where communities support them, pending a “technical consultation.”
“Decisions on onshore wind sites will continue to be made at a local level as these are best made by local representatives who know their areas best and are democratically accountable to the local community,” the government said in a statement.
Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green Party lawmaker, said ending the ban on onshore wind was welcome, though “the devil is in the detail.”
“But if this is meant to ‘buy off’ giving the greenlight to the Cumbria coal mine later this week, it would be totally & utterly shameless,” she wrote on Twitter before approval for the mine was announced.
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