Claims that a new coalmine in Cumbria will help supply British-made steel and replace Russian imports do not “stack up”, a senior industry figure has warned, as the government prepares to make a final decision over the project.
Supporters of the proposed mine, which would be the UK’s first new coalmine in 30 years, have suggested that at least a share of the coal produced would be used in domestic steel production. They also say it could lower reliance on Russian coking coal in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
However, influential figures in the steel industry have become increasingly frustrated about the claims – with the two domestic steel producers understood to be unlikely to be significant customers for the mine’s coal. Chris McDonald, chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, which serves as the UK’s national centre for steel research, said there was no demand from his industry for the West Cumbria mine.
“There’s a frustration hearing other industries speaking on behalf of the steel industry when the steel industry itself has not come out to say that it wants this mine,” he told the Observer. “I would contend that there isn’t a demand for it. The case for the mine has been built around the need for coking coal produced in the UK for the UK steel industry. That’s the case that the coal industry is making. But that doesn’t stack up with the needs of the steel industry.
“There are only two potential customers for this coal in the UK: Tata Steel and British Steel. British Steel have said they cannot use the coal from this mine because the sulphur levels are too high. Tata Steel have said if the coal were available, then they may or may not use a small amount. There isn’t anyone in the steel industry who’s calling for the mine.”
The Woodhouse Colliery was initially approved by councillors in 2020. However, ministers intervened and launched an inquiry following opposition to the project, which grew in the run-up to the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow last year. Michael Gove is set to decide on whether to approve the mine by July. Recent reports have suggested he is minded to do so, although his department states no decision has been made.
West Cumbria Mining (WCM) has said the plan would create 530 permanent jobs, with 80% going to local people.
McDonald, who also chairs the UK Metals Council, questioned claims that the mine would lower reliance on Russian energy imports. Mike Starkie, the Conservative mayor of Copeland, which includes the proposed Whitehaven location of the mine, said the Ukraine invasion had “demonstrated why we need far more self-reliance for all of our natural resources”. Local MP Trudy Harrison said the UK has “typically” imported coking coal from Russia.
McDonald dismissed the claim. “I think it’s important to be clear that even if this mine opened tomorrow, it would not displace a single tonne of Russian coking coal from the UK – and I can say that with confidence,” he said. “Tata Steel already does not use any Russian coking coal. British Steel have said they can’t use the coal from Cumbria. So there’s no possibility that it can displace any Russian imports.
“We’ve got all of the big players in the European steel industry, with plans to gradually reduce their reliance on coking coal from 2030 onwards. If the mine were given approval tomorrow, I think it wouldn’t open until 2026 or similar. So it’s unlikely to have a very long life in that regard. There might be some other basis or some other case that somebody is making for the mine. From my view, as someone who’s worked in the steel industry for 20 years and deals a lot in future steel technology, there isn’t a demand from the steel industry for the mine. Environmental arguments aside, I think they’ve missed the boat on the market, essentially.”
Sources at Tata Steel concurred with McDonald’s view, though the company has not publicly expressed a view on the mine. British Steel declined to comment. WCM was contacted for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.