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'Tension' in government over go-ahead for new UK coal mine

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·3-min read
Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain's Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, arrives in Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng arriving in Downing Street in London, Wednesday, September 30, 2020. Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Britain’s business minister has admitted there are “tensions” between a government decision to wave through a new coal mine in Cumbria and Downing Street’s commitment to reducing Britain’s emissions.

Kwasi Kwarteng told the Business, Energy, and Industrial Select Committee there had been a debate in cabinet about whether to challenge the new deep coal mine project, the first of its kind to be opened in Britain in 30 years.

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“There is as slight tension between the decision to open this mine and our avowed intention to take coal off the grid,” Kwarteng said.

“There was a debate, I can be frank about that, there was a debate in the government about what we can do about this. This was a local decision, this was a local planning decision.”

The new Cumbrian coal mine was approved by local councillors last October, the Financial Times reported. The government could have challenged the decision and overseen the process itself but housing secretary Robert Jenrick decided not to.

In this handout photo provided by 10 Downing Street, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick answering questions from the media via a video link during a media briefing on coronavirus, at 10 Downing Street in London, Sunday, March 29, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street via AP)
Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick. Photo: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street via AP

The decision to wave through the project drew criticism from Greenpeace, which accused the government of going against its climate commitments. The government has pledged to make the UK a net-zero emissions country by 2050. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in December this government would stop funding coal, oil, and gas projects abroad through UK Export Finance.

Kwarteng said the Cumbrian coal mine would produced coking coal, rather than thermal coal, which is the most polluting kind. He said Britain would be using coking coal regardless of whether it came from Cumbria or not.

Watch: Labour call for government to cancel benefit cut

READ MORE: Investors pressure HSBC to ditch coal

“The argument, I think it’s a fair one, is we have steel processes, we have industrial processes which use coking coal and if we don’t have sources of coking coal in the UK, we would be importing those anyway,” he told MPs. “My mission as secretary of state is to try and decarbonise the industrial process.”

Kwarteng promised his department would publish a strategy on decarbonising British industry within the next few months.

Kwarteng was named business secretary at the start of this month, taking over from Alok Sharma. Sharma has taken on a full-time role preparing Britain for the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. The event is an annual UN-sponsored climate summit for world leaders.

Alok Sharma Britain's Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy walks through Downing Street to attend a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Britain's Parliament resumes Tuesday following the summer break. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
COP26 head Alok Sharma MP. Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Sharma appeared alongside Kwarteng at the Business, Energy, and Industrial Select Committee on Tuesday. Committee chair Darren Jones asked Sharma whether he agreed that the approval of the coal mine was “embarrassing” for Britain given its role hosting COP26 later this year.

READ MORE: Net zero emission plan could cost £50bn a year — but might just work

“Clearly, the direction of travel for the UK is very clear and I completely understand the point that you’re making,” Sharma said.

“We have had a big impact in bringing down the mix of coal and our energy mix and you know we have a commitment to ending coal usage as well.”

Watch: Climate change could cause next housing crash