‘Canaries in the coal mine’: Protesters rally against Cumbria mine as public inquiry launches

Campaigners are urging ministers to “keep the coal in the ground” as a four-week inquiry into the Whitehaven opencast mine begins.

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SOURCEDesmog Blog
Protesters gather outide the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on the first day of a public inquiry into the Cumbrian coal mine. Credit: Coal Action Network.

Anti-coal campaigners gathered in Westminster today to call on the government to scrap what they called “insane” plans for a new coal mine in West Cumbria.

Activists left messages opposing the mine on cut-outs of yellow canaries outside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, where a four-week public inquiry into the opencast mine begins today.

The inquiry represents the final opportunity for ministers to reject the project, which the Green Alliance thinktank estimates would emit 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually up until 2049, a year ahead of the U.K.’s net zero emissions target.

The mine still enjoys support from MPs with constituencies in the area, but yesterday Tory MP for Copeland, Dr. Neil Hudson, announced he would be withdrawing his support for the project ahead of COP26. In a submission to the inquiry seen by The Independent, Hudson said that recent extreme weather events and the U.K.’s leadership role as hosts of the upcoming COP26 climate summit had led to his change of heart.

A simultaneous demonstration was held outside the site of the proposed coking mine, the Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven, where developers plan to extract coal to make steel, primarily for export.

“We have to keep this coal mine in the spotlight, even after COP26, until the decision is made,” said community campaigner Jill Perry, whose speech in West Cumbria was transmitted to the London protest over speakerphone.

“I think the government is hoping that this mine will fall off the radar,” Perry added. “We have to keep working together.”

Canaries in the Coal Mine

 The protests were coordinated by Coal Action Network, along with local campaign group South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) and Friends of the Earth.

“No new coal”, “Stop ecocide” and “Wrong direction” were among the messages left on a row of yellow paper canaries lined up outside Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s department.

The action is an allusion to the old mining practice of bringing a caged canary down a coal mine, to test if conditions underground were too toxic for miners, with campaigners comparing humans to the canaries.

Anne Harris, a campaigner at Coal Action Network, thanked protesters for helping win previous battles against opencast coal mines for thermal coal, including plans to extend Bradley opencast mine in County Durham last year.

“It doesn’t have to be that we continue to extract from the earth to continue to have a good life – in fact, the opposite is very often true,” she said.

Global Issue

The protest also featured a speech by Javiera Martinez, a human rights activist from Columbia and student at SOAS University, who called on the power of collective global solidarity as she spoke of oppression against land defenders in Latin America.

“When we defend our land we are criminalized, oppressed and murdered,” she said, adding that local and global struggles were interlinked: “In our world everyone is connected – we are here to support and offer solidarity.”

Grace Onions, an Extinction Rebellion activist, told DeSmog that plans for the mine were “completely nuts – insane”.

“Even to consider opening a coal mine anywhere in this climate and ecological emergency is mad… we must leave all the coal and gas in the ground.”

‘U.K. Hypocrisy’

Controversy over the mine has plagued plans by developers West Cumbria Mining Ltd. Last year, Cumbria County Council’s approval of the application led to widespread public condemnation as campaigners accused the U.K. government of hypocrisy.

West Cumbria Mining has argued the mine would create hundreds of needed jobs, and that British coal is still needed to make steel.

But campaigners argue that the government should instead be encouraging the growth of green jobs in the area, and facilitating the decarbonization of the steel industry.

Responding to intense public pressure, the government “called in” the decision in March and will now have the final say on whether the fossil fuel project goes ahead at the end of the inquiry.

The government’s expert climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee, have said the mine gives a “negative impression of the U.K.’s climate priorities” in the year it is hosting the COP26 climate summit and would have an “appreciable impact” on the U.K.’s carbon budgets.

The public inquiry will see a number of MPs give evidence both in favor and against the mine, as well as representatives of environmental groups and of West Cumbria Mining. A decision is expected in four working weeks, but may be delayed until after COP26.

A Government spokesperson said: “The U.K. was the first major world economy to pass a net zero emissions target into law.”

Referring to a planned end to thermal coal, used to generate electricity, they added: “Coal has no part to play in our future power generation and will be phased out by 2024 – a year earlier than planned, which is on top of important steps we are taking to decarbonize industries that still rely on coal.”

West Cumbria Mining Ltd has been approached for comment.

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