The above picture is looking out across the Irish Sea from the shoreline of St. Bees in West Cumbria; if you continue following the coast you will reach the town of Whitehaven, which in the eighteenth-century boasted of having the greatest port outside of London and looks upon the mountains of the Lake District National Park. On the 19 March 2019, Cumbria County Council approved a plan by West Cumbria Mining Limited to operate the first deep coal mine in thirty years at Woodhouse Colliery in a £165 million deal which is to be located between St. Bees and Whitehaven. The mine will process 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year destined for the UK and European market replacing imports from the US, Canada, Russia and Columbia. The controversial plan gained support from councillors representing all the major political parties and one of the reasons it was ultimately given the green light was expressed by Councillor Geoff Cook who stated that “the number of jobs on offer … outweighed concerns about climate change and local amenity”. The mine is expected to employ 500 people and an estimated 2,000 more jobs will be created within the supply chain. The approval has angered climate protestors as the justification based around employment irrevocably places anthropocentric interests above the sustainability of the planet.
But what is coking coal? Known also as ‘metallurgical coal’, it is primarily used in the steel industry. Metallurgical coal is much harder and blacker than coal used for thermal purposes and it contains more carbon and less moisture. As carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most commonly produced by human activity and is responsible for 64% of human made global warming, the approval of the mine does appear counter to the goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement about climate change. The agreement focuses on keeping the average global temperature increase to well below 2 celsius above pre-industrial levels and to limit the increase to 1.5 celsius, a long-term goal made harder with the continual burning of fossil fuels.
The action group ‘Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole’, have been active in petitioning the planning application for a number of reasons. They are concerned about the mines proximity to the Sellafield nuclear power plant as it will be located less than five miles from the site. There is also concern about West Cumbria Minings plan to sell a percentage of the coke on the open international market as it could end up being burnt in power stations or potentially in the manufacturing process of projects such as Trident submarines. There is also anger towards the suggestion, which was used as part of the PR campaign, that the coke is necessary for producing steel for wind turbines. An argument which seems condescending when the planet is in the grip of an environmental crisis.
The approval of the Woodhouse Colliery highlights the most fundamental issue within the Anthropocene, that of the human versus the natural world. At a time when our children and young adults are protesting climate change and begging for adults to responsibly be the custodians of their future planet, a plan which undeniably puts human factors before those of the environment is a detrimental step backwards and threatens the security of the planet for us all.