News of the likely closure of the UK’s steel blast furnaces has prompted calls for the government to reconsider approval for a controversial Cumbrian coalmine that had been planned to supply the industry.
On Monday, British Steel announced that it plans to replace its two blast furnaces at Scunthorpe, while Tata Steel is considering closing its two at Port Talbot, in a dramatic reshaping of the UK steel industry. Both companies will instead rely on much cleaner electric arc furnaces, which use 87 times less coal.
West Cumbria Mining plans to produce 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year at Woodhouse colliery in Whitehaven for use by “steelmakers in the UK and EU”. However, the blast furnace closures would mean a dramatic reduction in coal use by the UK industry, and would probably mean that the vast majority of the Cumbrian coal would have to be exported.
Tim Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the announcement from British Steel “means that any economic case for a new coalmine in Cumbria is now completely dead in the water”.
He said: “We need to see the government wake up to the fact that the steel industry is now going full steam ahead to decarbonise steel and start to invest in long-term renewable jobs for the future.”
Michael Gove, the government minister in charge of planning, approved the UK’s first new coalmine in 30 years last December, despite criticism from former Conservative ministers including Alok Sharma and Lord Deben.
Electric arc furnaces require only 9kg of coking coal a tonne of steel against 780kg for a tonne of blast furnace steel, according to the lobby group UK Steel.
British blast furnaces produced 4.8m tonnes of steel in 2022, suggesting they may have used 3.7m tonnes of coking coal. Based on UK Steel’s figures, producing the same amount of steel in electric arc furnaces would require only 43,000 tonnes of coal, or about 1.7% of the Cumbrian mine’s output.
The UK government’s decision notice last December approving the coalmine made reference to electric arc furnaces and other low-coal technologies, but said that there was “no certainty that electric arc furnaces will make a significant contribution to UK steel production”.
Tony Bosworth, coal campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Michael Gove’s justification for approving the mine last December was largely that the steel industry would need coking coal for decades to come.
“But it now seems the UK market will soon disappear. This follows similar signals from EU steelmakers who have already announced they’re moving to greener production methods.
“This is all before construction on the mine has even begun, with the promised local jobs looking increasingly shaky in the medium term.”
However, the mine still has the support of some Conservative MPs who argue the UK would benefit from 500 local jobs and would not have to import coal.
Mark Jenkinson, the Conservative MP for Workington in west Cumbria and a former apprentice with British Steel, said he still 100% supported the new mine because of the continued need for coking coal in electric arc furnaces, and the desire to avoid emissions associated with transporting it into the UK.
“They do use a lot less [coal], as they’re not using it for its thermal properties,” he said. “That would not be a good excuse to ship it from halfway across the world with the incumbent emissions.”
West Cumbria Mining did not respond to a request for comment.