A new opencast coal mine at Druridge Bay, Northumberland, set to be approved on Tuesday will undermine the government’s plans to phase out unabated coal by 2025 warns newly appointed Labour Shadow Energy and Climate Secretary Barry Gardiner.
In a letter to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, seen by DeSmog UK, Gardiner asks that the planning decision be called in and resolved by central government as it “presents a concrete challenge to a cornerstone policy announcement made by the Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change [DECC] last autumn.”
Should the Highthorn opencast mine be approved, this would see three million tonnes of coal extracted up to 2027. And with funding to carbon capture and storage cut last November, it’s unlikely any of this would be abated.
“I believe that approving new coal extraction in the UK would undermine stated central government policy to phase out unabated coal by 2025, in line with the UK’s domestic and international climate change commitments,” writes Gardiner.
Just last week, Energy and Climate Secretary Amber Rudd reiterated the government’s commitment to phasing out coal in hopes of quelling post-Brexit fears around energy and climate policy.
However, it comes after meeting minutes between the coal industry and government sparked controversy in May as they showed that Energy Minister and Tory Party leader hopeful Andrea Leadsom assured the industry the phase out commitment was just a consultation at this stage. She also encouraged coal executives to offer definitions for what ‘unabated coal’ means.
When asked in a parliamentary question by Gardiner last month, Leadsom was unable to provide a definition for ‘unabated coal’.
According to climate policy research and campaign group, Sandbag, the consultation is set to be launched in late July.
Gardiner has now asked that the Department for Communities and Local Government and DECC coordinate on the planning decision. As he argues: “Allowing a decision on this opencast mine to be made before the consultation has even begun on the policies required to deliver the coal phase-out by 2025 is therefore premature.”
The Highthorn coal mine will be operated by Banks Mining – the same company managing the opencast coal mines on climate science denier Matt Ridley’s Northumberland estate. Banks Group was also in attendance at the industry meeting with Leadsom.
Responding to Gardiner’s letter, Banks Group environment and community director Mark Dowdall is quoted in Newcastle’s Chronicle Live stating: “Having never had any contact with or questions about our Highthorn proposals from Mr Gardiner, it is difficult to conclude that this London MP has a full and proper understanding of the details of our plans, and we would question the veracity of the information on which he has based his request.”
He added: “It makes far greater sense to support North East jobs, to deliver regional environmental and conservation enhancements and to provide a secure domestic supply of energy by mining our own indigenous coal reserves through carefully planned and sensitively operated schemes such as those that we run, rather than relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles away.”
However, more than 12,000 people have signed a 38-Degrees petition against the mine due to its threat to local ecosystems.
Currently local planning policy doesn’t cite climate change as a factor to consider when determining the environmental acceptability for coal extraction.
“It is essential that communities and councils have a strong role in determining how energy is produced and generated in their local area,” writes Gardiner. “However energy and planning policy from central government with regard to unabated coal is currently sending contradictory signals to local councils.”
“This incoherence is in danger of undermining the ability of Northumberland County Council’s Planning Committee to make a reasoned decision on the proposed Highthorn mine that provides appropriate weight to both the local impacts and national policy objectives.”
He continues: “I wish to emphasise that it is beyond the capacity and remit of the County Council’s Planning Committee to coordinate between central Government departments where the planning system has not been updated to be in line with major policy announcements from other departments, and that my letter in no way implies criticism of Northumberland County Council.”
Gardiner wrote to the Northumberland County Council as well to express his “deep concern over the current incoherence between national energy and planning policy with regards to the future of coal in the UK.”
Gardiner has also asserted in his letter to Clark that allowing the new opencast coal mine to go ahead would threaten the UK’s commitments under the Paris climate deal agreed last December and signed by Britain on 22 April.
Under Article 18 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, signing a treaty such as the Paris Agreement means that that country has an obligation not to defeat the treaty’s object and purpose prior to its entry into force.
“This imposes an obligation on all government departments not to defeat the stated objective of the Paris Agreement, ‘to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’,” explains Gardiner.
He continues: “My concern is that unless you call in this planning application an entirely unfair and disproportionate responsibility will rest upon Northumberland County Council to decide on a proposal that may contribute to the breach of our obligations under international law.”
Photo: Save Druridge Bay