Not all fossil fuels ‘the spawn of the devil’, says climate minister in defence of new coal mine

Climate minister Graham Stuart has stated firmly his support for the controversial new coking coal mine in Cumbria, saying not all fossil fuels should be seen as “the spawn of the devil”.

In an update on UK Climate Policy hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the environment, Stuart voiced his support for decarbonisation, but firmly backed the controversial new metallurgical coal mine which was granted planning permission after a public inquiry by Micheal Gove last year.

Stuart described the mine as “net zero”, referring to Gove’s decision document that outlined that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the extraction process “would be relatively neutral and not significant” taking into account mitigation such as off-setting. The document notes this only accounts for the extraction process on site, not the downstream emissions from the use of the coal.

Stuart emphasised that the coking coal is still heavily used by the steel industry, giving the example that the steel made for use in wind turbines. He said in this way, the coal mine will be “contributing to the environment”, by providing a net zero coking coal alternative for the industry. However, as the steel industry is currently moving towards decarbonisation, some have argued that this justification doesn’t take into account market changes.

Stuart did note that there are currently legal challenges against the coal mine, but that he fully supports the recommendation made by a planning inspector. Friends of the Earth and Cumbria-based campaign group South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) both filed statutory appeals section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 on 13 January which are set to be heard together.

READ MORE: The legal arguments that could torpedo the Cumbria coal mine

In response to a question posted by ENDS, Stuart also reiterated his support for the latest oil and gas licensing round, and asserted that a more nuanced take on fossil fuels is required “rather than viewing all fossil fuels as the spawn of the devil”.

Last week he said: “It's fantastic to see such interest from industry in this round, with the awarded licences set to play an important role in boosting domestic energy production and securing the UK's long-term energy security of supply.”

Earlier in the talk, Stuart made a rallying call for the UK to “redouble efforts to reduce greenhouse gases”. He said: “Climate change is a global issue and we will only have success if we work together.”

He also said that he has “time for climate change sceptics” and does not believe that they should be “pushed out of the conversation”.

Net zero tsar Chris Skidmore, who chairs the environment APPG, did not agree with his peer’s enthusiasm for the coal mine.

During the talk he reinstated that fossil fuels are not compatible with the UK’s legally binding net zero commitment, and said if planning rules were reformed, as he suggests in his recently published review of the government’s net zero strategy, “the coal mine would never have happened”.

He referenced how the fracking vote forced by Labour in September had been a “fork in the road” for him. In response to a question put forward by ENDS, Skidmore also noted that his decision to step down at the next election is linked to his belief that the net zero debate requires cross-party support and this is what he wants to focus on.

Former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, vice chair of the environment APPG, told ENDS that the assertion that the Cumbria coal mine is ‘net zero’ is “the very definition of fake news”.

Lucas also said she does not believe the coking coal produced by the mine will displace coal imports, referring to some messaging from the steel industry that this coal will not be used, and estimates that the majority of the coal may be exported abroad. 

She said: “Just because the burning happens elsewhere, that doesn’t absolve the coal mine, and our government, of any responsibility over its climate-wrecking damage.

“The fossil fuel era is over. It’s time for ministers and energy giants to get with the programme, lock out fossil fuels for good, and deliver the clean, green, affordable renewables we need to secure a liveable future.”