A Tory MP who backed the UK’s first new coal mine in over 30 years has been elected to chair the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on environment.
Desk-banging and jeering were heard in the House of Commons committee room on Wednesday night as lawmakers voted in Trudy Harrison, who represents Copeland in West Cumbria – where the proposed mine in Whitehaven is located.
Harrison replaces former Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who resigned from the Commons in January in protest at the government’s move to issue new North Sea Oil and gas licences.
The Copeland MP’s selection was welcomed on social media by the all-party group, which tweeted: “We look forward to working with Trudy as we continue to provide an ambitious, cross-party voice for climate and nature in Parliament.”
Around 40 MPs and peers elected Harrison in the raucous voting session, which was open to all members of the Commons and Lords.
DeSmog understands that a large number of Conservatives turned out to sway the vote in Harrison’s favour, with several people in the room reporting a frenetic atmosphere. “Hordes of Tories” were said to outnumber Labour MPs, many of whom were running late and barred from entry.
“They clearly felt it a point of principle that they keep control of the chair, regardless who the candidate was – the whole thing was a stitch-up,” a source said, adding: “I think if the public saw how things really work here they would be horrified.”
All-party parliamentary groups have no formal role in Parliament but can often act as an influential forum for debate, and also produce reports, and make policy recommendations. The chair is a pivotal role, tasked with providing direction to the secretariat – the body that formally runs the APPG – as well as leading on the execution of its agenda.
The appointment of a pro-coal MP in this role comes after a week of shattered climate pledges from both main Westminster parties. On Thursday, the Labour Party announced it would scrap its commitment to spend £28 billion a year on green investments, days after it was reported the Conservatives are poised to ditch a mechanism that could slash emissions from domestic heating.
In January, DeSmog revealed energy secretary Claire Coutinho had accepted thousands of pounds from Michael Hintze, one of the early backers of the UK’s main climate science denial group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. A member of the group’s board was also appointed to a parliamentary committee on climate change.
“Slowly, slowly, fossil fuel interests are taking over our institutions,” Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project told DeSmog.
Alice Harrison, head of fossil fuels campaigning at Global Witness, said: “it seems the new chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment is also a big fan of coal. The Conservatives want to take us back to the 19th century.”
Coal mine controversy
Harrison, who served as an environment minister until November last year, advocated passionately for the proposed mine in Whitehaven as it became a political flashpoint in discussions over the UK’s commitment to net zero.
At the 2021 planning inquiry she described the coal as an “environmentally friendly” domestic source for steel. She characterised opposition to the mine as “simply gesture politics”, adding that the coal would help “build the technologies powering us to net zero”.
Levelling up Secretary Michael Gove finally approved plans for the mine in 2022, but it remains deeply controversial.
Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, releasing more carbon dioxide than oil or gas when burnt. It also produces toxic elements like mercury, arsenic and soot, which contribute to air pollution. If it went ahead, the mine would emit nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 15,000 tonnes of methane a year.
Despite the green light, the mine still only has four percent of the funding required to operate, according to campaigners. A number of legal challenges are also pending.
Scenarios laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make it clear that global coal use has to collapse to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees and avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change. This week, it was reported that global heating had for the first time averaged more than this temperature over a 12-month period.
Harrison, like other supporters of the mine in Whitehaven, has argued that the “coking” coal from this mine is suitable for use by the UK steel industry. But industry bosses have said that the Cumbrian coal is too high in sulphur, which rules it out for use in British and European steelworks.
West Cumbria Mining, the company behind the project, claims the project will create around 500 jobs. However, Westmorland and Lonsdale Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron said the government was giving the false hope of jobs for political reasons. The jobs, he said, would be short term because the mine’s business case “didn’t stack up”.
Anne Harris from Coal Action Network told DeSmog: “This appointment makes a mockery of the Environment APPG and shows that this government can never be trusted with this enormous crisis facing humanity.
“In supporting a new coal mine in Cumbria, Harrison is in a minority, and out of touch with the full impacts of climate change and how fossil fuels cause it. It’s a lie to say the proposed coal mine in West Cumbria would be anything other than a climate disaster.”
The all-party parliamentary group exists to “strengthen the influence of parliamentarians on public policy and public debate on the environment, and to assist parliamentarians by improving their access to specialist information.”
Prior to its latest meeting, the Environment APPG had 25 officers (MPs and peers) who participated in its work. These included Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Shadow Minister for Energy Security Alan Whitehead, Liberal Democrat energy and climate spokesperson Wera Hobhouse, and former Labour environment minister Barry Gardiner.
Harrison, and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero did not respond to requests for comment. The APPG for Environment declined to comment.