The UK has a deeply intertwined history with the coal industry and one that it is steadily trying to distance itself from. The high-polluting fossil fuel helped kickstart the industrial revolution, turning the UK into an industrial beacon for the rest of the world to follow. But now, as concerns arise over issues such as climate change, global warming, and sustainability, the fuel is far from being seen as the precious source that, once upon a time, it used to be. This is precisely the reason for such a divide in opinion regarding West Cumbria Mining’s new coal mine plans.
The UK miner announced its £160mn (US$218mn) coal mine proposal to mixed reviews. On one hand, the project is being hailed as an opportunity for economic growth, largely by the townspeople of the mine’s possible location in Whitehaven in the northeast of England. Conversely, the proposition came under immediate fire by those that believe coal is a thing of the past, labelled irresponsible, hypocritical, and going against everything the UK is endeavouring to do regarding sustainability.
With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosting the COP26 climate conference later this year, it’s evident a decision needs to be made soon regarding whether the project is given the go-ahead or whether it’s shunned in favour of the environment.
What are the mine’s economic positives?
Like almost every country in the world, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK hard - especially in its economic and employment sectors. Factoring in that unemployment rates in the northeast of England were branded “the highest in the country” towards the end of 2020, sitting at almost 85,000 people, it shows how desperate the region is for development, investment, and opportunity. In theory, the mine would create over 500 jobs ranging up to £60,000 a year. In addition, the coal would be used to manufacture steel - another signature of the UK industry - and would enable the country to lessen its dependency on imported coal resources.
“If it’s not mined here, it will be brought in from elsewhere,” says Mayor of Whitehaven, Mike Starkie, who has been an avid supporter of the project from the off-set. “I don’t think anyone would argue that it is anything but very positive for the local economy.”
And he’s right. Certainly, within the Whitehaven area, there is a general consensus that the mine would prove beneficial to the local area, many of whom recall a time where the coal industry was an integral part of their community.
What is the sustainable cost?
Naturally, with any mining project, there’s always an environmental haze that hangs over it - in particular, projects involving coal. The UK’s coal production rates have dropped more than 90% in the last 10 years as the country scrambles to align its nationwide efforts with the Paris Climate Agreement. As a world leader, the pressure is on the UK to set a sustainable example. Giving the go-ahead to a project that will prove detrimental to the UK’s environmental endeavours would be nothing more than a contradiction of everything it has said it is working towards.
And yet, it’s important to note the importance of steel in the manufacturing of renewable energy assets. As an important component for wind turbines and solar panels, green energy would struggle to function without the production of steel. So, perhaps, coal is needed for a sustainable future after all.
Either way, West Cumbria Mining’s proposal has succeeding in turning heads. While the mine would detract from the UK’s sustainable efforts, it does offer the opportunity for much-needed employment and development in a region that has suffered greatly during the pandemic.