Minister rejects opencast coal mine citing climate change fears

The government has rejected plans for an opencast coal mine in Northumberland on the grounds that it would exacerbate climate change.

Eighteen months after Sajid Javid first took responsibility for a planning decision for a new coal mine at Highthorn, the communities secretary said he had concluded the projects should not go ahead.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth said the decision is the first time the UK government has rejected a planning application citing climate change as the reason.

Q&A

What is clean coal?

Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet and emissions from its use as a source of heat and energy make it historically the single largest threat to our climate.

But it is also the largest source of electricity in the world, providing 41% of our electricity needs.

Clean coal relies on a series of technologies known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). In 2015, the International Energy Agency calculated that CCS could help reduce global carbon emissions by 13%, delivering a huge chunk of reductions needed by 2050 to keep below a 2C rise.

CCS technology aims to capture carbon dioxide generated at coal plants and store it underground in rock formations and aquifers.

But so far no major coal power plant has managed to make CCS work on a grand scale. Costs have proved prohibitive – especially as low natural gas prices have made coal uncompetitive.

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Rose Dickinson, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “This is a significant victory for local residents and the climate, it means an important step forward has been taken in ending the era of fossil fuels.”

Explaining Javid’s decision, officials said: “He concludes that overall the scheme would have an adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change of very substantial significance, which he gives very considerable weight in the planning balance.”

The communities secretary said that the global warming impact, together with harm to the local landscape, outweighed the economic benefits of the mine.

Banks Mining, which submitted its planning application in 2015, had argued the project would bring substantial investment to the local area and create at least 100 jobs. The company said it had not yet decided whether to appeal the minister’s decision.

The use of coal for electricity generation has plummeted to 19th-century levels in the face of carbon taxes and competition from gas, but the Highthorn site is not the UK’s only proposed new coal mine.

West Cumbria Mining wants to build a £200m mine at Woodhouse in Cumbria, south of Kendal, which would be the UK’s first deep coal mine in several decades. The company plans to extract metallurgical coal for steel-making rather than power generation.

Cumbria county council has so far postponed meetings on the project, and is yet to decide whether to approve or reject it. Two coal power stations this year have already announced closure plans, after which the UK will have just six coal plants.