86,000 signature petition is to be delivered to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid ahead of landmark planning decision
Can a government credibly call on other nations to phase out their use of unabated coal power at the same time as approving a new coal mine?
That is the question Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has to answer as the clock ticks down to a decision on whether or not to give the green light to the controversial Druridge Bay open cast coal mine in Northumberland.
The government will today face fresh calls for it to reverse the planning permission granted to project by Northumberland Council in summer 2016, with local residents travelling to Whitehall to deliver an 86,000 signature petition to the Department for Housing, Communities, and Local Government (DHCLG) calling for the mine to be blocked.
Javid “called in” the original planning decision for review in September 2016, and in what is thought to be a first for the UK’s planning system cited concerns about “the extent to which the proposed development is consistent with government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change”.
A final decision is now due by March 5th with environmental campaigners warning the ruling represents an acid test of the government’s recent green rhetoric, as well as its stated commitment to phasing out unabated coal power both in the UK and overseas through the Powering Past Coal initiative. Block the project and a powerful new precedent will be set that carbon intensive projects can be stopped on climate grounds. Give it the green light and questions will be asked about how committed the government really is to a coal phase out and wider climate action.
Today’s petition was orchestrated by Coal Action Network and 38 Degrees, and notably cites the government’s pledge to be an international leader in ‘Powering Past Coal’.
June Davison, a resident of Dipton village who will be part of the group delivering the petition, said approving the new coal mine would run counter to the government’s wider environmental agenda.
“My community have been fighting the threat of opencast coal extraction for over 30 years,” she said. “In that time we’ve won three public inquiries and three inspectors have agreed that protecting the Pont Valley is important. The government have revised their energy policy and plan to phase out coal fired power stations by 2025. Now in 2018 it makes no sense to subject such a beautiful area to the detrimental effects of opencasting. We ask the Secretary of State to listen to the thousands who have signed this petition in support of our campaign and overturn the planning permission.“
Scarlet Hall of the Coal Action Network also stressed that the decision represented a real test of the government’s coal phase-out plans. “We know from our work with communities living near opencast all across the UK that these projects do not bring jobs to local people; instead they bring health problems and destroy much-loved natural habitats,” she said. “So will Mr Javid do right by local communities, or will he rule in favour of big coal?”
The petition comes as activists set up a “land protection camp” at the site with a view to monitoring planning permission constraints, reporting any breaches, and delaying work at the site.
Earlier this week, BusinessGreen reported that Friends of the Earth has written to Javid and his cabinet colleagues at Defra and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy to warn approval for the project “will not only irrevocably ravage an irreplaceable and beautiful part of our national coastline and heritage, it will severely damage the leadership role that the UK has shown on coal and climate change”.
For environmental campaigners the rationale for blocking the project is simple. Beyond the obvious local environmental impacts, the UK is committed to phasing out coal power by 2025 andlast year relied on coal for less than 10 per cent of the power mix. Those coal supplies the country requires from overseas are relatively secure and the political cost of being seen to approve a coal mine when trying to build a global coalition to keep coal in the ground is simply not worth paying, especially for a project that is only set to create around 1,000 jobs and generate around £87m for the Northumberland economy.
However, despite the fact any approval would risk torpedoing the government’s recently polished green credentials, the decision is not quite the open and shut case environmentalists would hope for.
Banks Group has been quick to point out that the mine has a projected five year life-span before the site will be restored. As such, it would provide domestic coal over a period when the government expects the UK to still be operating a handful of coal plants. Moreover, there are other industrial uses of coal for which there is no current phase out commitment.
“The government’s own projections state that coal will continue to be an important part of the UK’s energy mix for at least the proposed duration of operations at Highthorn, and substantial amounts are also essential for a wide variety of important UK industrial processes, such as the manufacturing of cement and steel,” said Jeannie Kielty, community relations manager at The Banks Group, in an emailed statement.
“It makes far greater sense to support skilled North East jobs, to deliver regional environmental and conservation enhancements, to avoid the carbon emissions caused by importing the coal supplies that the UK still needs and to provide a secure domestic supply of energy by meeting our continuing need for coal through indigenous reserves, instead of relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles away.”
It is an argument that very closely mirrors that made for developing a UK shale gas industry and reducing demand for more carbon intensive gas imports. In the case of shale gas, this argument has broadly won over the government even if the promised shale gas boom has failed to materialise. Supporters of the proposed mine may also note that this week’s cold snap has seen a spike in demand for coal power, as concerns over gas supplies have grown.
And yet campaigners will still be hoping the government passes this critical test of its environmental credentials. After all, can a government that promises a Green Brexit, pledges to phase out coal power, promises to deliver rapid decarbonisation, and urges its allies to ‘power past coal’ really approve a new coal mine? We will find out the answer by Monday.