Woodhouse Colliery is set to be the UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years — but the decision to approve it has been contentious for many.

Based on a coastal site near Whitehaven, West Cumbria, the £165m ($216m) mine will produce about 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal annually when it begins operations.

Cumbria County Council’s decision to approve the new coal mine in March 2019 has received widespread condemnation for going against the UK’s pledge to phase-out high-polluting fossil fuels such as coal.

Following legal challenges from campaigners and concerns from environmental groups, developer West Cumbria Mining (WCM) has been forced to amend its planning application for the mine, which the council once again approved on 2 October 2020.

The government then stepped in to review the planning permission, but UK housing secretary Robert Jenrick decided not to call-in the application on 6 January 2021 and believes the final decision should remain with the local authority.

WCM says it will hire 80% of its workforce from within 20 miles of the site and claims much of the £100m ($131m) annual investment in the project will reach the local community.

WCM CEO Mark Kirkbride believes the development will create a “world-class mine” in the area and provide long-term financial benefits to the UK overall.

“We now look forward to moving towards the construction of Woodhouse Colliery and harnessing the extensive mining history and knowledge in West Cumbria to operate a state-of-the-art mine,” he says.

“It will include the highest levels of health and safety, and technology to ultimately realise our vision of becoming a leading European producer of high-quality metallurgical coal for steel making.”


What is the Woodhouse Colliery?

Woodhouse Colliery was due to begin construction in the second quarter of 2020, with production expected to commence by the third quarter of 2021 – but that timeline has been affected by the ongoing disputes around the planning application.

It will produce metallurgical coal for the UK steel industry and for export to European steelmakers, who currently import about 45 million tonnes per annum from the US, Canada, Russia and Australia.

The proposed coal mine is based near to the site of the former Haig Colliery that closed in 1986, and will access offshore reserves from under the Irish Sea.

Processed coal from Woodhouse Colliery will be transported to a train loading facility at the Redcar Bulk Terminal through a 2.2km-long buried conveyor.

The coking coal will be used in blast furnaces powering steelworks in Port Talbot, Wales, and Scunthorpe, England.

What is Woodhouse Colliery
Woodhouse Colliery will send coal for steel making to Scunthorpe and Port Talbot (Credit: Frank Alfred Wright)

The mine, which has a minimum lifespan of 40 years, will employ 500 people directly and 2,000 workers in the supply chain.

WCM claims it will add £1.8bn ($2.35bn) to the UK’s GDP in its first 10 years of operation while accounting for £2.5bn ($3.27bn) worth of exports and directing £500m ($653m) of tax to government coffers.

The company has received £14.7m ($19.2m) in private equity financing from EMR Capital Resources Fund 1, a mining-focused private equity fund based in Australia.


Coal mining history in the UK

At the industry’s peak, UK coal mines employed more than one million people — compared with 2,000 in 2015 — and played an integral role in the country’s energy industry.

Most mines were located across the north of England, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland.

The two most common forms of mining are open-pit, which is a surface mining technique of extracting rock or minerals from the earth, and deep mining, where minerals are recovered underground.

The UK’s deepest pit was the 1150m Boulby Potash mine in the village of Boulby on the north-east coast of England.

Woodhouse Colliery’s operations will go to a maximum depth of around 550m via existing drift tunnels associated with the former Sandwith Anhydrite mine.


Government policies on coal mining

Britain’s last deep coal mine, North Yorkshire’s Kellingley Colliery, closed in December 2015 as the government looked to ramp up plans for coal-fired power stations to shut down by 2025.

However, the UK’s phasing out policy applies to power stations only, meaning the Woodhouse Colliery could continue operating beyond the 2025 cut-off date.

Despite the world transitioning towards renewable energy, coal remains a desirable natural resource for use in the likes of domestic heat generation, food and beverage production, chemicals production and electricity generation.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) says there will continue to be a “significant domestic market for coal” as a fuel for a wide range of industries.

“There are currently no feasible commercial alternatives for coking coal for use in blast furnaces in the steel sector,” added the BEIS.

“While steel making in a blast furnace will need to use coking coal in the medium-term, the government has established a £250m ($327m) clean steel fund to address the need to reduce steel-making’s carbon impacts, including the shift away from coal as the source of carbon in steel.

“We are well on the way to phasing coal out of our energy system by 2025, and last year Great Britain went nearly 4,000 hours without using coal for electricity.

“Ending our use of it will be a key milestone on our journey to end our contribution to climate change entirely.”

What is Woodhouse Colliery
Coal mining employed about one million people in the UK at its peak (Credit: World Coal Association)

According to the BEIS 14.5 million tonnes of coal was needed to satisfy demand in electricity generation in 2017 and 1.6 million tonnes of coal was used to power blast furnaces in the iron and steel industry in 2018.

But it accounted for just 2% of UK generation in 2019, the lowest share since centralised electricity supplies started to operate in 1882.

Coal met 40% of UK needs as recently as 2012, but has plummeted over the past seven years due to falling demand, rising renewables, cheaper gas, and higher CO2 prices.

After Cumbria County Council approved the planning permission for the mine in March last year, Geoff Cook, chair of the council’s development control and regulation committee, admitted the decision had not been easy.

“All of us would prefer to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and we recognise that during construction there will be disruption to many local residents,” he added

“However, we felt that the need for coking coal, the number of jobs on offer and the chance to remove contamination outweighed concerns about climate change and local amenity.”


What are the arguments against the Woodhouse Colliery?

Major concerns over the Woodhouse Colliery project revolve around the serious impact it could have on the UK’s chances of reaching climate goals of being net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A report released by London-based independent think tank the Green Alliance in January 2019 argued that plans for new coal mines are “incompatible with UK climate ambitions and unnecessary”.

It adds that Woodhouse Colliery will hold back the development of low-carbon steelmaking.

The report outlines four ways the steel industry should be cutting carbon, These include:

  • Using less steel
  • Using recycled steel
  • Improving the efficiency of steel production with conventional blast furnaces
  • Producing steel with new processes using renewable energy.


The Green Alliance says opening a new coal mine at this point will hinder this strategy by ensuring the continued availability of cheap coal.

Professor Rebecca Willis, co-author of the report, said Woodhouse Colliery is “clearly incompatible with the UK’s climate ambitions and the need for a clean energy future”.

“The new government has championed its commitment to climate action — it now needs to set out its policy on fossil fuel extraction, making clear that digging more coal out of the ground is no longer acceptable,” she added.

What is Woodhouse Colliery
The UK is phasing out its coal-fired power plants by 2025 (Credit: Flickr/Beyond Coal & Gas Image Library)

On making its original decision to allow the project to go ahead, Cumbria County Council said the emissions from mining operations at Whitehaven would “most likely be a substitute for those of similar operations elsewhere rather than being a source of additional emissions”.

It added: “If the coking coal from Whitehaven proved more competitive because it is located closer to steel manufacturing plants of the UK and Europe than the rest of the world, then mining operations elsewhere would be very likely to reduce their output by a similar level of production, leaving CO2 emissions from extraction and processing in balance globally.

“Furthermore, if the coal from Whitehaven became less financially competitive than alternative sources, then there would be no market for its product, which would mean it would then remain in the ground, leading once again to a carbon-neutral situation.”

But the Green Alliance refutes the council’s claims that the mine would be “carbon neutral”.

It says that because the coal is intended for steelmaking, it would produce 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 per year — the equivalent to emissions produced from more than one million households.

WCM plans to fund and develop a major ‘carbon sink’ forest scheme, planting more than 250,000 trees each year.

This will be combined with a proposed solar farm to power the mine, which the firm claims would offset more than 25% of CO2 released when its coal is used to manufacture steel.

Co-author of the report Professor Mike Berners-Lee understands that Cumbria’s politicians want to see new jobs in the area, but says that analysis conducted by the Green Alliance shows the profits from the mine would leave the local area with only 3% of the turnover spent on salaries.

He adds: “We urgently need an active, low-carbon industrial strategy for Cumbria and other local areas, to generate thousands of green jobs rather than hundreds of coal jobs.”