The potential impact of two new coal mining projects on climate change has recently been considered by separate UK decision makers.
In March 2018, then UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government, Sajid Javid, refused a planning application for a three million-tonnes open cast coal mine in Northumberland. He cited reasons that GHG emissions from the proposed development would adversely impact measures to limit climate change, departing from the appointed planning inspectorate's recommendation to approve the scheme.
In his decision letter, the secretary of state said: "He agreed that GHG emissions would be emitted in the short-term resulting in an adverse effect of substantial significance, reducing to minor significance in the medium-term; and that greenhouse gas emissions in the long-term would be negligible, but that the effects of carbon in the atmosphere would have a cumulative effect in the long-term. Given that accumulative affect, and the importance to which the Government affords combatting climate change, he concludes that overall the scheme would have an adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change of very substantial significance, which he gives very considerable weight in the planning balance."
While this ruling was commended by environmental campaigners, the developer sought judicial review, and in December 2018, the High Court quashed the secretary of state's decision. It found that, among other things, he had erred in his decision by giving considerable weight to the adverse effects of GHG emissions. The Court decided that the Secretary of State had agreed to many of the planning inspectorate's findings on the proposal—for example, that there was a need for coal to meet the UK's energy needs and that there was a window within which coal from the proposed development would be used for that purpose—but reached a very different decision and had given inadequate reasons. This included the failure to explain how the UK's energy needs would be met by low carbon sources instead of coal. The application is now due to be reconsidered by a new secretary of state.
In contrast, planning permission for a deep coal mine project was granted by Cumbria County Council in March 2019. The developer will have permission to extract nearly 2.5 million tonnes of coal a year, mainly from under the seabed at Whitehaven, resulting in the release of an estimated 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 50-year lifespan of the project. The "coking coal" to be extracted will be used in the manufacture of steel. In GHG emissions terms, the argument put forward was that, because the coal would be used in the United Kingdom or Western Europe, it would actually reduce the need to import product from much further afield—the principal sources being the United States, Russia, and Australia. The applicant argued that this would save 5.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in transportation emissions over 50 years and, therefore, weighed in favor of the proposals when assessing its overall impact—this, at a time when the UK National Planning Policy Framework suggests that councils should be wary about coal-related projects and that planning permission should not be granted unless "the proposal is environmentally acceptable" or "if it provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts."
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