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Cumbrian Mine - a mistaken decision

February 22, 2021 3:40 PM
By Keith Melton

Cumbrian mine - an ecological response

From the ChairThe arguments for the opening of a new mine in Cumbria revolve around the quality of the coal that is to be mined and many other benefits are proposed.

The stated assumptions are that it will produce high-quality coking coal vital for steel making, not to be confused with fossil fuel to be used for heating and general energy production. Therefore the "reduce fossil-fuel" argument for NOT mining in Cumbria is not scientifically sound according to the pro-mine faction. However, this argument falls at a number of hurdles.

Also, the claim is that mining coking coal in the UK will save the environmental costs associated with transporting such material from other geographical sources. There are additional socio-economic reasons for establishing such a mine in the UK, especially in a high-unemployment area of the NW.

Arguments used by the `Environmental Lobby` against the opening of the mine are primarily based on the fact that fossil fuels should be left in the ground because we are facing a global over-heating threat which is already causing a major climate crisis and has the potential to become an existential threat if greenhouse gas (GHG) production takes the average global temperature beyond 1.5o above pre-industrial global temperatures.

The problem with the UK`s potential opening of the Cumbrian mine is that the two sides of the argument seem to be missing each other's main points - the arguments may be at cross-purposes. There are clearly several interdependent factors that need to be unravelled if a scientifically acceptable decision can be justified to both sides of the argument.

Steel Production

Steel Production has been increasing worldwide from 1,670 million metric tons (Mt) in 2014 to 1,870 Mt in 2019. In the same time period, however, UK steel production has gone down from 12.1 Mt to 7.2Mt a decrease of 40%. The UK also imports (net) around 3.1Mt of steel. More recent production or demand figures are not available, but the likelihood is that the economic lock-down has reduced the overall figures dramatically, so what will happen from now on?

It is important to realise that the iron and steel industry, worldwide, accounts for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, so we need to do everything we can to reduce emissions, particularly for this sector. The pro-mine argument rests heavily on the fact that the coal is strategically important for the UK.

Steel demand

As economies develop, the use of steel generally diminishes, so predicting future steel demand (and, therefore, the carbon footprint of steel usage and production) depends on a number of factors and may be disrupted in different ways.

There are three likely areas of disruption:-

  1. Reduction in demand for a sector's product
  2. Increase in useful life of the steel
  3. Change in steel intensity in a sector

And six key sectors:

  1. Automotive
  2. Capital Equipment and Machinery
  3. Residential Construction
  4. Commercial Construction
  5. Consumer & Durable Goods
  6. Infrastructure

Global overheating imperative

If we are to truly tackle Global overheating, all of these sectors are going to require reduction of steel use. Just to take one example, it would be possible to reduce steel use significantly in Residential Construction by moving to engineered wood, which is currently possible in a number of ways. It is no part of this article, however, to force the market choices by which this could happen, simply to point out that political pressure to solve the Climate Crisis makes such disruption more likely to be needed rather than less likely.

The OECD uses the Automotive industry as its example of how demand may be reduced

Factor Industry-specific disruptors

Baseline use

Sharing, transportation-as-service and consumer preference will decrease per capita passenger vehicle intensity (fewer vehicles per capita)

Increase in useful life

Longer-lasting/reusable vehicle structural and exterior components as a result of better design and materials will reduce annual demand for new vehicles

Change in steel intensity

Continued vehicle light weighting for both steel (same surface area - less mass) and impact of substitutes

So, the Global overheating imperative is likely to reduce steel demand and use worldwide over time. Essentially the point is, it is going to have to change otherwise we are screwed anyway.

The implication, therefore, for demand of steel in the UK, is that it is more likely to go down rather than go up. And this does not take into account any economic factors associated either with economic change as a result of the coronavirus, or economic changes resulting from Brexit down-turns, both of which are likely to add downward pressure rather than upward pressure in the UK.

OECD guidelines for reduction of steel`s carbon footprint

"Innovation for Climate Change Mitigation in the Steel Sector

The world steel industry is an important CO2 emitter and is therefore being called on to play a major role in mitigating climate change, not only by reducing the CO2 emissions of its production processes, but also by contributing to the infrastructure of a low-carbon economy. In the long run, significantly reducing the industry's emissions will require a shift away from current production methods towards new methods of production. The industrial application of already existing technologies could contribute significantly to mitigating climate change. As an example, wider diffusion of the use of more energy-efficient production practices could significantly reduce CO2 emissions. In the longer-term breakthrough technologies will be required to reduce the impacts still further. In particular, the adoption of Carbon Capture and Storage technologies would reduce CO2 emissions from the sector drastically. Public policy has an important role to play in encouraging such developments (OECD, 2011, 2012). A better understanding of how to incentivise and induce both incremental and radical innovations in steel that can help mitigate climate change is needed."


The overall conclusion here is that we are likely to see a reduction in the UK (and worldwide) market for steel rather than an increase. This calls into question the primary argument for a UK mine.

The market for Cumbrian coal

The company claims its intention is to "…become a leading European producer of strategic, high-quality metallurgical coal (also known as Coking Coal) for steel making. The Project will deliver a significant financial boost at local, regional and national levels." In other words, it is not simply claiming to replace the importation of coking coal to the UK, it is intent on exporting the product, primarily into the European market. This claim is notwithstanding the fact that we are now outside the EU`s single market, so there is no guarantee there will not be punitive tariffs or regulations facing those exports. Given the EU priority for reduction of CO2 emissions regulation may be a significant market depressant.

The company Project update from November 2019 clearly indicates that "WCM intends to export most of the coal produced to Europe whilst also selling into the UK steel industry." The quantities projected indicate 3.1 Mt per year for a 40 year life of the mine. (around 124 Mt in total)

The company also makes a big play for the environmental benefits of its coal output "…WCM believe that renewable energy sources are the way forward to protect the environment. All of these forms of green energy production require steel, with coal being an essential element in the steel making process."


Need for coal

The argument here is twofold. One is that steel is needed and the other is that coal is needed to make the steel. The company states that "…our modern way of life and economic growth would not be possible as it is the most important engineering and construction material in the world". This at a time when very large question marks hover over the notion of `economic growth` as currently measured. It is also at a time when our current `way of life` is being seriously challenged as unsustainable and unjust in terms of both intragenerational and intergenerational terms across the world, global north versus global south, and across the age versus youth divide.

As well as this general concern, we have already examined the potential downward pressures on the need for steel generally. But let us look at the need for coal, whatever the future demand for steel.

Coal - Essential element?

We therefore need to examine the argument that coal is actually an "essential element" in steel production, as the company suggests. Their pamphlet indicates that "Around 74% of total global steel production relies directly on inputs of coking coal". So, by its own definition around a quarter of the world`s steel does NOT use coking coal as such an `Essential element`.

So, what is coal used for and are there realistic alternatives. "Front Line Action on Coal" has examined this issue… https://leard.frontlineaction.org/coking-coal-steel-production-alternatives/

"Coal is needed as a reducing agent. "Reduction" is a chemical reaction that turns iron ore (Fe2O3) into pig iron (Fe). Carbon monoxide (CO) is the crucial ingredient (Fe2O3 + 3CO → 2Fe + 3CO2) and is produced in blast furnaces by burning coal. This also produces carbon dioxide as a waste product."

Alternatives to `coking coal`

An alternative reducing agent is hydrogen, whose `waste product` is water rather than CO2. The `pro-mining` lobby argues that the production of hydrogen creates CO2 emissions - but that is only the case if the energy used to separate the hydrogen from its source is created from fossil fuels. Recent technological advances mean that it is now very likely that clean production of hydrogen can be successfully scaled up to the point where it is effective in steel manufacture, using renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. The newer methane pyrolysis process of hydrogen production means that no GHG carbon dioxide is produced.

(By the way, using hydrogen would also cut emissions of air-polluting particulates, an additional benefit outside the Climate Crisis argument being primarily addressed here.)

There has been a significant increase in research over recent years into alternate reducing agents for the Steel industry. The use of recycled rubber tyres and plastics is now becoming mainstream in Electric Arc furnaces. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/srin.201100047

Brand new research, to be presented in February 2021, suggests a combination of recycled tyres and coffee grounds may be the `thing`, so here again the demand for coking coal is likely to be dramatically downwards if this technology is proven. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coffee-may-be-the-secret-to-making-eco-friendly-steel-3lq7r3hlc

Biochar and other forms of vegetal carbon may also be used as a reducing agent, either as a complete replacement (as in Brazil ,where relatively small scale steel production using eucalyptus and pinewood account for upwards of one quarter of local steel production) or in combination with other materials, reducing the use of coking coal. It should be noted this may not be environmentally sustainable at scale… https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288237577_Biomass_use_in_the_steel_industry_Back_to_the_future

Recycling, rather than making new steel

Currently just less than one third of steel (<30%) is manufactured from recycled steel in electric arc furnaces which typically use around 16kg of coal per ton of steel produced. This is a clear reduction relative to blast furnaces, for making new steel, which uses 800kg of coal for each ton of steel made.

Clearly, the limitation here is in availability of steel to be recycled. Using the reference to the automotive industry above, however, it may well be the case that as alternate transportation systems are adopted (or, better still, transport needs generally are reduced by more home-working) the tonnages of steel to be recycled from scrapped cars will increase, thus reducing the need to manufacture new steel for the auto industry. Again, this would represent a downward pressure on coal use.

Over-all assessment

A considerable proportion of the argument pushed by the pro-mine lobby is that Cumbrian coal acts as a strategic replacement of imports for the UK, but the company involved sees most of its sales as coming from exports. When you combine this information with the additional information about reducing demand for UK steel, the justification for UK mined coal is seriously weakened. In any case there is an overwhelming requirement, relating to the Climate Crisis, that the world as a whole MUST reduce its emissions of CO2, substantially. And the steel sector is therefore a strong target for disruption.

Furthermore, as the country which started the industrial revolution which has led to the massive growth of GHG emissions over the last three hundred years, we cannot now claim any special entitlement to being an exception to the requirement to reduce emissions here in the UK, whatever may be the supposedly sound socio-economic reasons for mining coal in Cumbria.

Thus, as a society, we in the UK must accelerate all of our emissions reduction capability, much more rapidly than less-developed countries which have righteous claims to `catch-up` in terms of quality-of-life measurements of a thriving economy. (See Kate Raworth`s doughnut economy paradigm for further just transition arguments to thriving economies. https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/ )

Decision to allow mine to go ahead challenged

Many people, including Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, have challenged the Government`s decision NOT to `call in` the decision to go ahead with the mine. It should be a UK government decision to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions to almost zero before 2050 and yet the relevant minister, Robert Jenryck (MP for Newark), chose not to consider the decision.

The Government`s Chief Planning Officer defended that decision "The Secretary of State has to make a judgement based on whether the impacts of the scheme are more than local. "And in this case, the decision was that this was a decision for local determination, and the application was approved by the local authority… a decision for local democracy."

However, the worldwide implications of increased emissions from the coal that is to be mined over the next 40 years at least, represent a disaster for future generations. Hardly something a Government Minister should refuse to look at!

It has been claimed that all the arguments FOR a new mine in Cumbria are environmentally and economically sound. Sadly, in the planetary context, this is simply NOT true, and wider existential threats of global overheating and the Climate Crisis argue very strongly against the Cumbrian Coal mine, despite strong local support in terms of potential increases in employment opportunities.

This is a difficult case for those of a Liberal persuasion who believe in the strength of local democracy. However, Liberal values also recognise that the freedom for individuals and communities to make such local decisions have to be constrained when it can be shown that such freedom is plainly harmful to others. In this case the harm to the planet outweighs the freedom for local decision making, however strongly held and supported.