A new coal mine in the UK appears doomed after the government bowed to pressure to further delay planning approval.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, ordered a public inquiry into the £160m project near Whitehaven in north-west England, citing concerns about climate change.
The UK wants to eliminate all net carbon emissions by 2050 and is chairing UN climate talks in November. On a visit to the UK this week, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said coal had no future.
The Woodhouse Colliery would produce coking coal for use in steel and chemical works, hoping to replace imports from Australia, the US and Russia.
It would employ 500 people in rural West Cumbria, where the economy depends heavily on the Sellafield nuclear site and tourism.
Cumbria county council, the planning authority, approved the plan in October. Jenrick gave the final go-ahead in January. But after vociferous lobbying by green groups and activists, including Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, the council said it would re-examine the application.
West Cumbria Mining, the developer, launched a judicial review into that decision last week and now Jenrick has stepped in.
A public inquiry will last more than a year, putting off the issue beyond the COP26 climate talks in November. WCM has already indicated that further delay would cause its Australian investors to scrap the project, which has cost £36m so far.
In a statement on March 5, it said: “This has now reached a critical point in that to allow the project to continue, the award of planning permission is urgent and essential.”
Mark Kirkbride, WCM chief executive, added that there “was a very real risk the project will never be delivered”.
It first filed for planning permission in May 2017 and the council has approved the project three times, before reopening the process each time.
Jenrick’s decision could cause a backlash among Conservative MPs. Local MP Trudy Harrison and 42 others backed the mine after Labour opposed it. They said their support proved that the party was now more in touch with the working class, after winning dozens of seats in Labour-voting former industrial areas.
But green groups such as Friends of the Earth welcomed “the startling, but very welcome U-turn”.
Its climate campaigner Tony Bosworth said: “A new coal mine in Cumbria would not only wreck our climate, it would also destroy the UK government’s credibility ahead of crucial climate talks in Glasgow later this year.”
Jenrick cited advice from the Climate Change Committee, an advisory body, which said the mine would increase emissions and make it hard to stick to government targets.
His letter to the council said: “The secretary of state recognises that proponents and opponents take different positions on that matter, and considers that this should be explored during a public inquiry.
“Furthermore, controversy about the application has increased. Overall, the secretary of state considers that this application raises planning issues of more than local importance.”
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, welcomed the decision. “The truth is that this mine is terrible for our fight against climate change, won’t help our steel industry and won’t create secure jobs,” he said.