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Friday, November 11, 2022

Cumbria coalmine redundant before it even opens, say campaigners | Coal

A new coalmine proposed for Cumbria is likely to be redundant before it even opens because the steelmakers that are its target market are moving so rapidly away from fossil fuels, analysis from green campaigners claims.

Steelmakers across Europe are moving to “green steel”, which uses renewable energy and modern techniques to avoid the need for coking coal of the type that the proposed mine in Whitehaven would produce.

According to analysis from Friends of the Earth, about three-quarters of EU blast furnace steel-making capacity will reach the end of its life and require reinvestment by 2030. Most of this is likely to be replaced with low-carbon technologies that do not require coking coal. This would vastly restrict the available market for any Cumbrian coal.

Tony Bosworth, coal campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The UK steel industry will buy only a small percentage of the Cumbrian coal, and with European steelmakers already moving to greener steel production, the market for this mine is declining before it has even opened. The Whitehaven mine risks becoming a stranded asset, with no market for its coal, and potential consequences for the jobs the developers claim.”

A decision on the Whitehaven mine is due to be made by 7 July, after years of dispute over planning. The proposals were delayed during the UK’s hosting of the Cop26 UN climate summit last year, when the government risked embarrassment on the world stage by opening a new coalmine while urging other countries to give up coal.

People demonstrate against the proposed coalmine in Cumbria outside the Home Office in London
People demonstrate against the proposed coalmine in Cumbria outside the Home Office in London last September. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Ministers and some Conservative MPs have argued that the Cumbrian mine could go ahead despite the UK’s climate commitments because it would produce coking coal, rather than coal for use in power stations, which is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions from coal around the world. Coking coal is used mainly by the steel industry, to create the high temperatures and chemical reactions needed to produce high-quality metal.

They say the UK’s steel industry would otherwise need to import coal, with higher emissions than producing it at home. However, analysis by the independent Committee on Climate Change found that about 85% of any coal produced at the Woodhouse Colliery in Whitehaven was likely to be exported.

Monday’s report from Friends of the Earth suggests that even this export market is unlikely to materialise, as steelmakers across Europe are moving rapidly to green production methods. Its analysis found that companies responsible for more than half of the large proportion of EU’s steelmaking capacity that needs reinvestment by 2030 had already announced plans that would avoid the need for new coking coal.

These include announcements by ArcelorMittal that its Sestao site in Spain would be the world’s first full-scale zero emissions steel plant by 2025, and by Salzgitter, a German steel company, that it would move fully to hydrogen and renewable energy. SSAB in Sweden has also agreed to switch all of its steelmaking in Scandinavia to electric arc furnaces, which do not require coal.

For coking coal to be needed, steelmakers would need to take a different route to cutting greenhouse emissions, by planning to use carbon capture and storage alongside traditional techniques, instead of switching to green steel with renewable power. Using carbon capture and storage could be more expensive than opting for renewable energy alternatives, however, and there is some evidence that companies originally considering this route may rethink: for instance, IJmuiden steel plant in the Netherlands will use hydrogen, instead of coking coal with carbon capture and storage.

Bosworth said: “With the world facing a climate emergency, green steel is clearly the future – something that any sensible government should embrace. Michael Gove [levelling-up minister] must reject this mine and ensure that areas such as West Cumbria are at the heart of the green industrial revolution that the UK so clearly needs.”

The UK’s steel industry has already rejected claims that it would require coal from Cumbria. Chris McDonald, the chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, which serves as the UK’s national centre for steel research, recently told the Observer there was no demand from his industry for the West Cumbria mine.

A government spokesperson said: “The UK steel sector is committed to decarbonisation, with individual businesses making commercial decisions on how to do so. We are working closely with the steel sector to support its transition to a low carbon future, including through our £315m industrial energy transformation Fund.”

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