A Scots real estate firm is involved in plans for the UK’s first deep coal mine in thirty years – a project described as “absolutely indefensible” by climate experts.
NPL Group – based on Glasgow’s St Vincent Street – is leasing land it owns near Whitehaven, in Cumbria, to a firm that has permission to dig up millions of tonnes of coal each year there for use in the making of steel.
NPL says it is “working with” the firm behind the Whitehaven mine – West Cumbria Mining – and describes it as a “project of national importance”. Plans for the mine were approved in December 2022 by UK levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, despite warnings from the government’s own climate advisors.
Steel production using coal is considered to be a major cause of climate change and the steel industry accounts for around seven per cent of global climate emissions. It is estimated that mining for the coal at Whitehaven will be the equivalent of putting an extra 200,000 cars on the road.
Campaigners argue the mine will imperil UK climate targets and have launched a legal challenge against it. One opponent said it is an “environmental catastrophe in the making” while another told The Ferret “no company with a shred of concern for people or the planet should be near a project to dig up coal”.
But the UK Government has argued Whitehaven will be “net zero in its operations”, produce coal for steel making that would otherwise be imported, and provide jobs for the local economy. Neither NPL or West Cumbria Mining have responded to our requests for comment.
West Cumbria Mining claims the Whitehaven mine could produce 3.5 million tonnes of coal each year but have the lowest emissions of any steelmaking coal mine globally. It will be net-zero emissions, the company says, because the climate pollution it does produce will be offset by the purchase of carbon credits.
The CCC – the body that officially advises the UK Government on climate change – says the mine will produce 400,000 tonnes of climate polluting carbon dioxide (CO2) each year.
This estimate only takes into account the emissions produced by mining the coal, and not the much larger impact of using it at steelworks. Over the Whitehaven mine’s lifetime, using its coal could produce 220 million tonnes of CO2.
Analysis has also suggested that the mine could prevent the UK from meeting an international agreement to reduce its methane emissions. West Cumbria Mining claims 95 per cent of the methane produced by the mine will be prevented from entering the atmosphere.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which heats the atmosphere 80 times faster than CO2. Coal seams contain methane which is released during mining.
In a report sent to Gove before he approved the mine, the Planning Inspectorate claimed Whitehaven would have an “overall neutral effect on climate change” because the amount of coal used in steel making globally would be “broadly the same with or without” it.
But critics have pointed out that many steel makers are moving towards more sustainable methods.
Both of Britain’s two major steel makers – Tata Steel and British Steel – are making moves away from traditional blast furnaces in favour of electric arc furnaces, which use 87 times less coal.
The apparently shrinking market for the coal produced at Whitehaven has led some, including local MP and former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, to claim that the business case for the mine is “dead”.
Supporters of the mine, including local Tory politicians, argue it will create over 500 much-needed jobs for the local economy.
Projects in Scotland
According to its website, NPL Group owns 55 sites across the UK including two in Scotland.
As reported by The Ferret in October 2023, environmental groups have called on the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot, to give the area legal protections from proposed developments.
NPL signed a deal with North Ayrshire Council in 2019 to regenerate the peninsula and there have since been proposals to build houses, golf courses, a nuclear fusion plant, and wind turbines.
‘More than climate can handle’
Anne Harris, a campaigner at the Coal Action Network, pointed out that the UN has said that existing and planned fossil fuel projects are already “more than the climate can handle so we simply cannot start a new coal mine, never mind one operating until 2049”.
“Numerous groups are active in a variety of ways to ensure this coal stays in the ground, to reduce the impacts of climate change.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Alex Lee claimed the mine is “symptomatic of a UK Government in denial about the role of fossil fuels in driving the climate breakdown people are facing from Brechin to Bangladesh”.
“No company with a shred of concern for people or the planet should be near a project to dig up coal,” Lee told The Ferret.
“The bosses of this Scottish firm should take a long hard look at themselves and reflect on the pain this project will bring to people through more intense and unpredictable weather.”
The Scottish Greens MSP, Mark Ruskell, said the Whitehaven mine is an “environmental catastrophe in the making”.
Ruskell added: “Every company must ask themselves questions about their role in the project, but the biggest fault lies with the UK government which has allowed it to proceed despite knowing the terrible impact that it will have.
“The Scottish Government has banned coal extraction, so have the Welsh. The UK must follow now for England otherwise they are making a mockery of their legally binding targets.”
West Cumbria Mining’s website says the Whitehaven mine will be “the lowest impact metallurgical coal mine in the world, setting the standard for all other projects to seek to meet”.
The company says it will “work with local landowners in Cumbria” to plant trees in the local area to offset any emissions from the mine “that cannot be mitigated”. “This will generate additional jobs in supportive green industries in Cumbria,” the website adds.
It continues: “The construction of the mine and infrastructure will be a significant project, with a spend of more than £160m over a two-year period. Almost all of the mining will be beneath the Irish Sea.
“The underground mining seams are around 500m deep (with the Irish Sea being around 30m depth). Undersea mining has been extensively practiced in the UK and around the world for centuries and is no different to onshore underground mining.”
A statement on the mine on NPL Group’s website says: “This project will bring significant employment to the area and will export coal into the UK, Europe and the US.
“This is a unique site combining rich reserves, available access and processing availability. There are no suitable alternative sites that can deliver a similar economic and sustainable solution to this development”.
Main image: iStock/Siyama9