DOMINIC LAWSON: It’s sheer madness to import the coal essential for our steel industry when we can produce it ourselves
Political civil war has broken out in the Johnson family — and not for the first time.
The Prime Minister’s father, 80-year-old Stanley, has denounced the Government’s decision not to block the construction of Woodhouse Colliery, Britain’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years.
Last week, Johnson Sr pronounced this to be ‘a massive mistake . . . How can we ask other countries to bring in their climate change reduction programmes when we are reopening the whole coal argument here?’
Stanley, who in 2019 praised the Extinction Rebellion protesters then bringing the centre of London to a standstill, was speaking in his capacity as ‘international ambassador of the Conservative Environment Network’, the role in which he will be attending the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November.
Stanley Johnson has denounced the Government’s decision not to block the construction of Woodhouse Colliery
In fact, the UK has been assiduous in eliminating coal from domestically produced energy.
But this new mine — in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland — is not for ‘thermal’ use in power stations. It is coking coal, for indispensable use in the blast furnaces of what remains of the British steel industry.
One tonne of such coal is required for the production of every 1.25 tonnes of steel — and, as yet, there is no economically viable alternative (recycling scrap steel is hardly a complete answer).
The Prime Minister has declared his commitment to making Britain ‘the Saudi Arabia’ of wind power, as part of the plan to make our entire electricity network ‘net-zero carbon’ by 2050.
This will cost a stupefying £160 billion a year over the next 30 years, according to the National Grid.
Vast numbers of new wind turbines will be needed for this. And what will they be made of? Yes, steel. So the question is whether we wish to make as much as possible — or indeed any — of that steel in the UK. If we do, then coking coal is required.
It comes after the Prime Minister declared his commitment to make Britain ‘the Saudi Arabia’ of wind power
Britain’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years is situated in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland. Pictured: An artist’s impression of the Woodhouse Colliery
Next question: where should that coal come from? Recently, almost 90 per cent of the coal we burn here has been imported, almost double the proportion of only a few years ago.
It should be obvious that importing the stuff from our two biggest sources — Russia and, especially, Australia — involves the emission of much more CO2 because of that generated in transporting the excavated minerals from the other end of the planet.
These points were emphatically made by the mayor of Copeland, Mike Starkie, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He was pitched against Dr James Hansen, a very grand American scientist, frequently described as ‘the father of climate change awareness’.
Last week, Dr Hansen published an open letter to Boris Johnson declaring the Copeland mine would guarantee the PM ‘ignominy and humiliation [for] contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’.
The mayor of Copeland was not impressed by this intervention (which was backed by sundry other climate change campaigners, including, inevitably, Greta Thunberg).
‘He’s not even in this country,’ said Mr Starkie. ‘His views are completely irrelevant . . . For any new green sources of energy, we’re going to need steel — and lots of it. It is better it is made here, in a modern mine, than shipping it from around the world.’
Obviously, Mr Starkie is delighted that the Copeland mine will generate at least 500 jobs in a part of the country that has suffered more than most from deindustrialisation.
That was also the local council’s attitude: its members — Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat — voted unanimously for the development.
Mayor of Copeland Mike Starkie (left) was pitched against Dr James Hansen (right), a very grand American scientist
The local constituency had been Labour for almost a century before Trudy Harrison won it for the Conservatives in a 2017 by-election.
That event was the canary in the mine for the disaster that befell Labour in the 2019 general election, when its ‘Red Wall’ across the North and Midlands was shattered by Tory gains, even in old coal-mining seats thought impregnable given the hatred there for Margaret Thatcher.
It just so happens that Trudy Harrison is Boris Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary. So if the Prime Minister was in any doubt about the views on the ground in Copeland, she could certainly have clarified matters for him.
There is, in fact, a real political problem for the Prime Minister, simultaneously committed (in typical ‘have-my-cake-and-eat-it’ fashion) both to addressing the concerns of such ‘left-behind’ parts of the country and to move Britain away from the ‘high-carbon’ manufacturing methods that have been at the heart of the Northern and Midlands economy.
Last month the think-tank Forward published a report signed off by both a former Tory and a former Labour minister.
Though they were in favour of the ‘net-zero carbon plan’, they pointed out that ‘the industrial and manufacturing heartlands in the Midlands and the North are far more likely to experience economic disruption during the net zero transition than the South East and London … Many of these places were worst-hit from the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s, [which] reinforces this problem’.
As if to demonstrate how much the modern Labour Party has lost touch with its roots, the Shadow Business Secretary and former party leader Ed Miliband yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the Copeland mine should be ‘stopped’ and that ‘alternatives’ should be adopted.
Mr Miliband, who was the author of the 2008 Climate Change Bill, did not explain what these ‘alternatives’ were for steel producers.
Ed Miliband yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the Copeland mine should be ‘stopped’ and that ‘alternatives’ should be adopted
So perhaps the Cumbrian mine go-ahead came as a shock to Alok Sharma, the former business secretary
He would have done well to read an article published last week by two MPs for steel-producing areas, Jessica Morden and Holly Mumby-Croft, who wrote: ‘Steel is not just an industry, it is an identity…hard-coded into the communities we represent. They are a key part of our industrial future . . . a perennially uncompetitive steel industry will simply increase our reliance on imported steel, which may not be produced to the same environmental standards.’
The secretary of state responsible for planning decisions, Robert Jenrick, decided not to challenge the local approval for the Copeland mine.
But Government policy in this field is capricious. Last October, Jenrick blocked the locally approved construction of an open-cast mine, Highthorn, in Northumberland, even though its product was also coking coal required by the British steel industry, and even though Highthorn would have had a much shorter production life than Woodhouse Colliery.
Absurdly, that verdict was based on the argument that ministers could not work out whether importing coal from Russia and Australia would generate more or less CO2 than making and transporting it domestically.
So perhaps the Cumbrian mine go-ahead came as a shock to Alok Sharma, the former business secretary now charged with full-time leadership of the UN climate change event in Glasgow.
He is widely reported to be ‘apoplectic’ about Jenrick’s decision to let the Copeland coal mine go ahead. Sharma’s manner is so smoothly anodyne that it’s hard to imagine him being ‘apoplectic’ about anything.
But I can see that it’s necessary for him to be said to be so, given his new responsibilities.
Robert Jenrick (pictured outside 10 Downing Street with Nicky Morgan) decided not to challenge the local approval for the Copeland mine
Pictured: The sun setting behind the Teesside steelworks along the bank of the River Tees in 2015
Yet is it actually true that other countries will look at this decision and say: ‘Because Britain has done this, we won’t feel obliged to do our bit to counter man-made climate change’?
Or to put it another way, would China — now building hundreds of new coal-fired power stations and financing many others across the developing world — have said, if the British government had blocked the Copeland mine: ‘Oh, now you have done that, we will scrap all our coal-fired power stations and definitely not build any more new ones’?
No, they wouldn’t.
To be frank, the whole idea of British ‘leadership’ in this matter is grossly to overestimate our significance in the world.
It’s a form of moral vanity—and if it has local victims, they will principally be in the ‘left-behind’ regions of our country that the PM promised to prioritise.
Perhaps Boris Johnson might explain that to his dad.
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