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Cumbria coal mine goes ahead

9 December 2022

Steel is everywhere - and to make it you need coal. Photo Ian Francis / Shutterstock.

On 7 December the government finally gave the go-ahead for a proposed coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria. This will provide high-grade coal for use in steelmaking. For the sake of industry and manufacturing in Britain it needs to stick with the decision.

The government has decided to support development of Woodhouse Colliery by West Cumbria Mining. This will bring huge economic benefit to a disadvantaged part of Britain, not least because it means 500 jobs directly, including 50 apprenticeships, mostly based in the local area – with further work created in the supply chain.


This welcome move follows eight years of indecision in the face of opposition by environmentalists to the planning consent given by Cumbria County Council in 2019.

By the beginning of 2021 the government appeared to be ready to approve the mine by refusing to reverse the council’s decision. But for nearly two years more it has wavered and delayed a final decision, apparently more interested in opinion polls than the detailed plans and arguments set out by West Cumbria Mining.


Steel is vitally important in any industrial economy – for rail, construction, manufacturing and much more. Last November the parliamentary Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee rightly warned that “Steel is a national strategic asset, a foundation industry, and a sector which the UK cannot afford to lose.”

Community, the union representing steel workers, wrote to the prime minister on 1 December urging the government to follow up on promises to back the industry. The risk is that Britain will become one of the few advanced industrial countries that cannot produce its own metal. In 2019 Britain ranked only eighth in the EU as a steel producer – and the decline has continued since then.

‘Coal is essential to make steel.’

And quite simply metallurgical grade coal, which Woodhouse will produce, is essential to make steel. The availability of suitable coking coal will not guarantee the future of the steel industry, but the new mine will end our reliance on importing that coal. And at present much of this comes from the USA, where coal is mined in non-union, mountain-destroying, strip mines in Appalachia.


Part of the reason for the delay and hesitation from government is the fixation with net zero targets and an unwillingness to face up to the exaggerated claims of objectors. Their arguments are a medley of unsupported views and half-truths – that there are alternatives to using coal to make steel (there aren’t currently), that British Steel’s works at Scunthorpe can’t use the Cumbria coal (no evidence given), that the mine will be uneconomic as demand falls (unsupported assertion) and so on.

The people in Cumbria support the mine, because they understand the environmental arguments for the mine. For example, transporting coal from the USA creates higher greenhouse gas emissions than those projected for the Cumbrian mine. And the claims of “green” jobs instead of these “dirty” jobs are fantasy – none have materialised in Cumbria all the while the arguments about the mine have been running.

Future demand

The inspector’s report accepted by Michael Gove, minister for communities and levelling-up, dealt thoroughly with the question of the future demand for steel and metallurgical coal to produce it. It said that there is no certainty about how soon viable, commercial alternatives to the use of coal-fired blast furnaces to produce virgin steel can be developed.

Meanwhile, it is likely that carbon capture technologies to reduce blast furnace emissions will be developed and adopted. So in all likelihood steel production using blast furnaces will continue to 2040 and beyond.


Electric arc furnaces are touted as an alternative, but at present they are used mainly for recycling scrap steel and not for primary production. The steel industry uses a mixture of both methods, and steel is the world’s most recycled material. But as British Steel points out in its low carbon roadmap, the solution (to reducing carbon emissions) isn’t as simple as switching from blast furnaces to electric arc.

Building new electric arc furnaces and making them suitable for primary production will take time. Without that new capacity, switching away from blast furnace production would not cut greenhouse gas emissions in the short term.


Electric arc furnaces may not need coal, but they do require intensive energy. But electricity generation is not guaranteed to be “green” – as we’ve found out this winter it’s a way off. And it’s futile to claim Britain as being low carbon if we import steel (or coking coal) or to ignore the present need for fossil fuels in the energy generation mix.

The arguments against the Cumbria mine amount in the end to a call for the decline of the steel industry in Britain and an increased dependence on importing it. Support for the government’s decision should be linked to demands it also supports the production of steel here.