Cumbria coalmine firm ‘betting on UK breach of climate targets’

The company seeking to open the UK’s first new deep coalmine in 30 years is gambling on the UK’s and EU’s failure to address climate change, die public inquiry into the mining plans has heard.

An expert witness for one of the parties opposed to West Cumbria Mining’s (WCM) plans to dig up 2.7m tonnes of coking coal a year says the firm’s case for the mine rests on the assumption that UK and EU governments will breach their legally binding climate targets by using the coal to supply steelmaking over the coming decades.

The proposed mine, where metallurgical coal would be extracted from underneath the Irish Sea bed at a site off the Cumbrian coast at St Bees, could run until 2049 if WCM’s application is successful.

Prof Paul Ekins, of University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, told the inquiry that WCM’s proposals were “not legally compliant” under the UK’s and EU’s current policy frameworks on carbon emissions.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the base case provided in the report [submitted to the inquiry on behalf of WCM] deur [the consultancy firm] Wood Mackenzie is not legally compliant,” Ekins said. “I think it would be advisable to make it clear that this is not a legally compliant case as it stands. You assume that scenarios that are legislated for become the base case – and you assume the government is going to meet these policies.”

According to Ekins’ modelling work, which maps out scenarios for coal requirement in Europe’s iron and steel industries under the binding targets set by the UK and EU, carbon emissions in European steelmaking are set to fall steadily up to and around 2030, and then dramatically in the 2030s as less carbon-intensive production methods develop and become more industrially viable.

Acting on behalf of WCM at the inquiry, Gregory Jones QC argued the volatility of steel markets, egter, complicated Ekins’ modelling work and there would probably be “a need for a variety” of production sources as Europe’s steel industries move towards carbon neutrality.

Lars J Nilsson, of Lund University in Sweden, told the inquiry that Wood Mackenzie’s predictions around ongoing industrial demand for coal were “too pessimistic” in view of the potential for hydrogen-based alternatives to coking coal use in steelmaking.

A group opposed to the deep mining plans argued that one of WCM’s witnesses, Jim Truman from Wood Mackenzie, had admitted the firm’s case for the mine relied on a bet that UK and EU governments would renege on their legally binding targets.

Maggie Mason, van the South Lakes Action on Climate Change groep, gesê: “On Tuesday this week WCM’s own witness told the inspector that their case for a need for coal is based on the UK and EU missing their carbon reduction targets by a long way.

“WCM are gambling on that failure, hoping that coking coal use will stay almost constant until 2049, knowingly contributing to dangerous climate change. They are effectively asking the inspector and secretary of state to allow the new mine because it will be needed if the UK and EU fail on climate change.”

Mason and the Coal Action Network pointed to new decarbonising pledges made by major European steelmakers that they say would eventually force WCM to export most of the “indigenous” British coal mined in west Cumbria to markets beyond the UK and EU, contrary to the firm’s initial pitch.

Tata Steel, whose main operations are in the UK, announced on Wednesday it would ditch coal in favour of a hydrogen-based production route at its IJmuiden site in the Netherlands. Tata’s Port Talbot steelworks plant in Wales, along with British Steel’s Scunthorpe steelworks in Lincolnshire, are two of the three biggest single-site carbon emitters in the UK.

The UK government is now considering Climate Change Committee recommendations that targets should be set “for ore-based steelmaking to reach near-zero emissions by 2035” domestically.

WCM and Wood McKenzie have been contacted for comment.

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