Allan Todd writes: When this Tory government decided to ‘postpone’ its decision on the controversial plans to open a new coalmine in Cumbria, until after COP27, many of us felt that the writing was clearly on the wall as to what that decision would prove to be. Logic, of course, should have ensured that the decision would be NOT to approve. Steel industry leaders, and business and engineering experts, have all come out in public to question the sense – and even the need – for this coalmine. In particular, they have referred to the mine as an investment in an “1850s technology” intended to supply coal for a steel industry which is rapidly shifting to cleaner production methods.
Many climate and industry experts had earlier warned that approval of the new mine would send the wrong signal to industry about UK ‘commitments’ to cut emissions to Net Zero by 2050. Yet this government – for party political reasons, to safeguard its ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North – nonetheless gave its approval. Ironically, on the very day approval was announced, a major steel producer in Germany announced that it would be selling green steel by 2025, and would be fully Zero Carbon by 2033! As Tony Bosworth of Friends the Earth said: “If the government wants to support a modern UK steel industry, it should help it be competitive by going green, not champion a climate-wrecking coal mine the industry neither wants nor needs.”
The fight moves up a gear
As soon as the decision to approve was announced, local campaigners were quick off the mark in organising opposition – both in public, and on social media: the latter via a Twitter storm. On Friday, there was a protest in Penrith’s Market Square, attended by around 40 people from XR North Lakes and local branches of the Green Party.
Then, on Saturday morning, a rally outside the entrance to the new coalmine, at the Marchon site – just off Wilson Pit Road on the outskirts of Whitehaven – attracted over 80 local activists:
This rally – mainly organised by FoE North West – was overwhelmingly composed of local people, including from XR North Lakes and XR South Lakes; the Allerdale & Copeland and the Carlisle branches of the Green Party; and also from Left Unity (Cumbria & North Lancashire)! The Coal Action Network was also represented.
Before proceedings began, protesters tied a wide range of banners to the fence surrounding the site: these included one demanding ‘One Million Climate Jobs.’ In addition, various (often very witty!) placards made telling points: ‘Coalition of Chaos’, ‘Exporting Extinction’, ‘Dirty CO2N’, and ‘Clean Coal = Dirty Lie’.
The rally then began with singing led by Cockermouth-based The Wild Chorus. Songs included: ‘Coal – don’t do it!’ and ‘Leave it in the Ground!’; with this musical start ending with a rousing rendition of ‘!Ya basta!’ (Enough is Enough!).
A succession of speakers then gave a clear message to the government: create green energy jobs in the area – NOT dirty fossil fuel jobs! Estelle Worthington, Regional Organiser of FoE North West, said: “The government’s decision to give the go-ahead to this polluting and unnecessary coal mine has been met with widespread opposition – locally, nationally, and internationally. Local people have come together to say West Cumbria deserves far better than this.”
The ‘local jobs/UK steel’ fallacy
West Cumbria Mining – owned by Australian hedge-fund Peninsula Energy, which places its funds in the Cayman Islands, one of the world’s long-standing tax havens – and those backing the proposed mine, argue that the mine will provide around 500 jobs, and would be ‘green’ because it would both greatly reduce coking coal imports and allow more steel to be produced in the UK. The problem with those ‘arguments’ is that the mining company has been forced to admit that over 85% of that they’ll produce will be exported. Equally damning is that the two biggest steel producers in the UK – Tata Steel and British Steel – are both on record as saying they would not use whatever coal from the mine remained in the UK. Either because they (like steel plants across the rest of Europe) are rapidly de-carbonising their steel production by using clean hydrogen – or because the coal has far too-high a sulphur content.
Significantly, senior steel-industry figures have pointed out that claims that they’ve demanded this mine are untrue. According to them, demand for coal from this mine – whether from UK or European steel producers – is a myth that’s been repeated for years. Chris McDonald, CEO of the Materials Processing Institute, which acts as the UK’s national centre for steel research has said:
“The UK steel industry has been clear that the coal from the West Cumbria mine has limited potential due to its high sulphur content. This, combined with the industry’s drive to de-carbonise, means that by the time the mine opens, only one of the UK’s current four blast furnaces is likely to be able to use this coal, meaning that more than 90% of the production will be exported. The situation is the same in Europe with even tighter sulphur controls and a faster drive to green steel, meaning that some companies will have moved away from coal completely by the mid-2030s.”
That there is a need for well-paid long-term jobs in west Cumbria can’t be denied. Even before this current ‘Cost of Living’ Crisis, poverty in parts of Cumbria – and especially along its west coast – was at high levels, thanks to Tory AND LibDem austerity. In 2017, Child Poverty Forum West Cumbria reported that 20,000 children were living below the breadline – findings made by a study carried out by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Parts of Whitehaven – such as Sandwith – were amongst the worst hit, with almost 50% of children living in poverty. In other west Cumbrian towns, such as Maryport and Workington, over 30% of children were classed as living in poverty.
Overall, in four out of the six parliamentary constituencies in Cumbria, more than 20% of children were living in poverty.
Not surprisingly, fuel poverty was a big problem for people in the area – with foodbanks increasingly reporting that those dependent on receiving the food parcels were asking for items that didn’t take so long to cook. According to figures released by the government in 2019, the proportion of people living in fuel poverty in Cumbria was the highest across all the English regions:
% Households in Fuel Poverty (LIHC) in 2018
Minimum for all English regions
Mean for all English regions
Maximum for all English regions
Yet local Tory MPs and mayors have hardly been to the fore in demanding action to end this poverty – such as, for instance, a massive roll-out of home insulation across the thousands of ‘leaky’ homes in Cumbria. The best they can promote is a dirty energy project that will do nothing to reduce home energy bills or take people out of fuel poverty. Strangely, one of the big supporters of the mine, Mark Jenkinson, a hard-right Climate-Change sceptic and Tory MP for Workington, recently claimed on BBC Newsnight that those jobs weren’t important as there was no unemployment in the area! This admission came during a debate with Lord Deben, Chairman of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), about the government’s decision to approve the mine. In that discussion, Lord Deben made the point that every single member of the CCC believed the approval was wrong, and stated that the real reason Gove approved the mine was because: “This is a political decision.” No doubt made to help shore-up ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs like Jenkinson.
Yet this carbon-spewing project – as well as not addressing the poverty issues – will also increase the risk of yet more ‘extreme weather’ flooding, which has badly affected Cumbria three times since 2000 (in 2005, 2009 and 2015). It will also contribute to rising sea-levels which, as a report by the Environment Agency in June 2022 showed, puts some 200,000 UK homes at risk of disappearing under the sea. One of the areas that will suffer is the west coast of Cumbria.
Some of west Cumbria’s areas at risk from rising sea levels by 2050.
The Ecosocialist Alternative
As well as those opposing the new coal mine, around a dozen supporters of the mine also showed up at Saturday’s rally. Leaving aside those who simply support the mine as part of their long-standing Climate Change denial agenda, there were those who are desperate for new jobs in the area, but have been misled by local Tory MPs and mayors who are essentially supporting the mine to bolster their own political careers. Interestingly, the two main proponents of the mine – Workington’s Tory MP and the (‘Not Elected’!) Tory Mayor of Copeland – were conspicuous by their absence. The argument for reaching out to those genuinely confused by Tory lies – and for a truly radical alternative, based on clean renewable energy jobs, around which we can all unite – was put most forcefully by Hazel Graham, a local climate jobs activist.
In particular, she attacked the attempts by West Cumbria Mining – aided and abetted by national and local Tory politicians – to divide the local community: “They are trying to pit the need for jobs for our generation against the need for our kids to have a living planet. They have to try to divide us because they see that throwing us mouldy crumbs of a small number of jobs in a dying industry won’t keep us quiet when what we need is thousands of secure, long-term, well-paid climate jobs.” She also went on to say: “We are demanding insulation and warmer homes, and affordable public transport, and secure unionised climate jobs in their thousands.”
In opposition to claims that the mine will provide 500 jobs, the results of several studies – which show just how many green jobs could be created in Cumbria – need to be shared widely. The number of jobs a combined renewable energy and home-insulation programme would provide in Cumbria range from 6000 to 9000.
These studies – and the presence of an Ecosocialist Alliance placard at this rally! – only serve to underline Hazel’s call for unity around social justice and ecological sustainability: the twin demands of the ecosocialist movement.
The next stage
In making this decision, the government has ‘justified’ it on the basis of figures that specifically don’t include the emissions of the new coal being burnt – mostly in countries that have an even worse climate record than the UK! By doing this, the Tories are simply showing their willingness to break the law – even though the UK is legally bound by the Climate Change Act, which commits us to reducing GHG emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels (Net Zero) by 2050. Gove’s claims that the new mine would be ‘carbon neutral’ have been dismissed as “absurd” and “greenwashing nonsense” by Margaret Kim, the off-setting head of Gold Standard.
Consequently – with no scheduled date for work to begin at the site – the next stage of the fightback will be by legal challenges. Friends of the Earth are currently considering this – and South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) has already set up a Crowdfunding page.
However, West Cumbria Mining, the government and local Tory politicians should not think we will be sitting around, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for a legal decision. Assuming a negative result, we need to begin preparing – now – to make a much more proactive response. Avenues already being discussed by some of those opposed to the mine include approaching organisations which already have an excellent track-record in successful non-violent direct action. In particular – and in addition to Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace – there are Lancashire’s Anti-Fracking Nanas and Reclaim The Power. As Tina Rothery of the Anti-Fracking Nanas said about the decision. “I am blown away by the hypocrisy, lunacy and downright illegality of this plan…There are legally-binding carbon emissions budgets that the UK government signed up for, and yet here it is, breaking promises and laws, and trashing what’s left of our international reputation.”
In the meantime, people across the UK can help build up the pressure by using their social media accounts to voice their opposition and explain why this mine is such a bad idea. Some suggestions for such posts are to include phrases such as ‘Not in My Name’, ‘No New Coal’, ‘We need to Stop Coal Now!’, ‘Coal – or a Future?’, etc. Depending on what social media you’re using, try to include the following: #StopCoal @luhc @CoalActionUK
Also, please send emails and letters to family and friends, and to local newspapers, councillors and MPs. You could point out to them what Alok Sharma (the Tory Party’s Climate Change Champion at COP26) had to say about approving the mine on 3 December.
“Over the past three years the UK has sought to persuade other nations to consign coal to history, because we are fighting to limit global warming to 1.5C and coal is the most polluting energy source.”
“A decision to open a new coalmine would send completely the wrong message and be an own goal. This proposed new mine will have no impact on reducing energy bills or ensuring our energy security.”
In your social media posts, emails and letters, you could include some of the following points about the mine:
85% of coal produced is for export, NOT domestic use
Two major UK steel producers have said they won’t use it (moving to hydrogen, poor composition/ too much sulphur)
It won’t reduce energy bills – or take people out of fuel poverty (which was already very high in west Cumbria, before this current ‘Cost of Living’ crisis)
New mine will create 500 jobs – but, according to the Local Government Association there could be 6000 ‘green jobs’ in Cumbria by 2030 (@LGAcomms )
The government’s own CCC has said it would INCREASE UK CO2 emissions by 0.4 million tonnes – with clear implications for our LEGALLY-BINDING carbon emissions budgets
It will be a backward step for UK climate action – and will damage the UK’s ‘international climate reputation’
You can find further excellent facts/figures/arguments on the pages of South Lakes Action on Climate Change:
Right now, the bottom line is that, although the festive season is almost upon us, the fight-back ‘Carries on Regardless!’
Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity’s National Council, and an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist. He is the author of Revolutions 1789-1917, Ecosocialism Not Extinction, and Trotsky: The Passionate Revolutionary – and the forthcoming Che Guevara: The Romantic Revolutionary
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
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