The new coalmine in Cumbria is likely to prevent the UK from meeting its internationally agreed commitment to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, analysis has suggested.
The Whitehaven colliery, controversially approved by ministers shortly before Christmas, will release about 17,500 tonnes of methane every year, according to estimates from the Green Alliance thinktank.
That is about the same as 120,000 cattle, or about half the beef herd in Cumbria at present, and could put the UK’s methane-cutting targets out of reach.
The analysis comes as campaigners also raise concerns about the filing of more than 100 oil and gas drilling licence applications.
The government had received 115 requests from oil and gas companies for new licences, which campaigners said would endanger the UK’s and global climate targets and send the wrong signal internationally.
Philip Evans, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “These new licences will make Britain’s homes and businesses more reliant on the volatile gas market, making further energy crises more likely and doing nothing to reduce bills.
“Then there’s the fact that the world has agreed to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible to maximise our chances of getting climate change under control, and the government’s failure to consider the full carbon cost of new drilling makes the entire process unlawful.”
Methane is an increasingly urgent problem, with emissions of the gas – which has a warming effect about 80 times that of carbon dioxide, though it breaks down faster in the atmosphere – strongly on the rise in recent years.
A sharp reduction in methane would give the world breathing space to take the longer-term actions needed to phase out fossil fuels, according to many scientists. At the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, the UK was one of the leading countries signing up to the global methane pledge, requiring a 30% reduction by 2030.
Emissions from the new mine, which will produce coking coal for steel-making, would make that target almost impossible to meet, according to the new analysis. Coalmines, including abandoned mines, are a big source of methane around the world.
The government has claimed the mine would be carbon-neutral, though this only applies to the mining operations and does not take account of the emissions when the coal produced is burned. Carbon neutrality would require most of the emissions from the mine, of methane and of carbon dioxide, to be captured.
The analysis by Green Alliance suggests this is not likely to be possible. The world’s best capture rates from mines rarely surpass 50%, according to the thinktank, so claims that about 95% of the mine’s methane could be captured have yet to be substantiated.
If the mine’s emissions are added to the UK’s total, far greater cuts in methane would need to be found elsewhere, including from farming.
Dustin Benton, a policy director at Green Alliance, said: “Phasing out dirty coal has helped make the UK a world leader in cutting carbon and methane emissions since 1990. But we are reversing course on methane: this decision is the first which directly contradicts the UK’s progress towards the global methane pledge. To ensure the mine doesn’t undermine our pledge, the government must charge the mine operators for any methane they can’t capture.”
Such charges would call into question the mine’s economic viability, however. If the emissions were charged at the current rates under the EU’s emissions trading scheme, of which the UK is no longer a part, the cost would amount to nearly £20m a year.
The Labour party has told the Guardian that if elected, it would try to prevent the mine from being constructed, and would halt its operations in the unlikely event coal was being produced by then. The mine is already facing potential legal challenges.
Proponents of the £160m mine say it will bring more than 500 jobs to the area, and claim that coking coal will continue to be needed to produce steel for some years, and using a domestic source for the coal will avoid the emissions involved in transporting coal from overseas.
Detractors argue that most steel companies are moving away from fossil fuels, and that the high sulphur content of the Cumbrian coal is not suitable for UK steel producers, so that more than 80% of the mine’s coal is likely to be exported. Experts and campaigners from around the world have warned that going ahead with the mine would damage the UK’s international reputation and fuel charges of hypocrisy.