There are “very compelling reasons” not to open a controversial planned coalmine in Cumbria, business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Wednesday.
The statement is the clearest indication to date of opposition to the mine within the government, which has been heavily criticised for allowing the mine as the UK prepares to host a vital UN climate change summit, Cop26.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick initially ruled that the mine did not conflict with national policy and was a local matter. But he reversed that decision on Thursday and ordered a public inquiry, citing rising controversy and new advice from the government’s official advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
“Initially, [Jenrick] said we wouldn’t go against the local planning decision, but he’s now looking at that again and I think there were very compelling reasons to do as the CCC suggested, and not open the mine,” Kwarteng told the BBC.
“I’m always sympathetic to the CCC,” he said. “They’re a body that I speak to very regularly and our goals are largely aligned.”
Tony Bosworth, at Friends of the Earth, said: “These comments are the strongest indication yet of real opposition at the heart of government to the Cumbria coalmine. This mine will increase global emissions and severely damage the UK’s credibility ahead of hosting Cop26.”
“The government must reject this climate-wrecking mine and help the UK steel industry move to zero carbon production technology, which will cut emissions and generate green jobs,” he said. A report published on Friday estimated that 9,000 green jobs could be created in Cumbria, far more than the 500 jobs promised by the coalmine.
Doug Parr at Greenpeace UK said: “There were very compelling reasons for not having the coalmine in the first place, so why did the government allow the process to carry on? They should put the issue to bed as soon as possible.” It is unclear if the final decision on the mine will come before Cop26 in November.
The government had been criticised by the CCC and leading scientists over the mine, which would produce fuel for steel production rather than electricity generation. The CCC said in January that the mine would have “an appreciable impact on the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets” and give a “negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities”.
Cumbria council initially approved the mine in October. But as the backlash grew, the council said in February it would reconsider the decision in order to take into account CCC advice published in December, the same advice cited by Jenrick.
If approved, the £165m project would produce 2.7m tonnes of coking coal a year. The government said this coal would otherwise have to be imported, but about 85% of the coal is planned for export and there is no shortage of such coal globally.
Mark Kirkbride, chief executive of West Cumbria Mining (WCM), the company behind the plan, said on Tuesday it was “distressing” that Jenrick had “reversed the two previous decisions not to ‘call in’ the project”. Cumbrian MP Mark Jenkinson called it a “kick in the teeth”. WCM said the mine would “fully conform” to climate policy.