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US climate envoy John Kerry weighs in on West Cumbria mine battle

Aerial CGI of Woodhouse Colliery mine site

The long-running battle over plans for a new coal mine in West Cumbria has hit the headlines again as the US Special Presidential Envoy on climate issues reacted to the proposals.

John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate issues, declared that “coal is not the future” when quizzed on proposals for Woodhouse Colliery, just outside Whitehaven.

Mr Kerry made his remarks in a BBC Newsnight interview, broadcast on Monday evening.

The long-serving senator and former Democratic Party Presidential nominee this week visited the UK as part of a European tour, meeting with political figures to discuss action on tackling climate change.

When asked by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis for his opinion on the proposals for the West Cumbrian coal mine, Mr Kerry responded that “generally speaking the marketplace has made a decision that coal is not the future”.

He added that “all over the world, people have made a decision to move to cleaner fuel than coal, which is the dirtiest fuel in the world”.

As a result of the worldwide shift away from coal power, Mr Kerry said that “the marketplace in America and elsewhere in the world” is now reluctant to fund ventures involving coal power.

“No investment firm is going to invest in a new coal plant,” he said.

“So I think the future is very clearly in the new technologies, in alternatives, in renewables, and the world is going to grow very significantly around this new market, as new fuels come online, whether it’s hydrogen, longer battery storage – there’s exciting things happening.”

But Copeland’s Conservative mayor Mike Starkie, who has long been a vocal advocate for the plans for Woodhouse Colliery, argued that weight should not be afforded to Mr Kerry’s intervention on the issue, in light of the fact his response focused on coal mined for electricity generation.

If constructed, the coal extracted from the proposed West Cumbrian mine will not be used for electricity generation, but instead as an ingredient in the production of steel, which Mr Starkie and fellow advocates for the mine argue has no viable alternative.

“If he’d been asked specifically about metallurgical coal, and the production of steel, he may have had a different answer,” Mr Starkie said.

“Once again, people are mixing up coal for fuel and coal for steel production,” he added, describing the difference between coal extracted for electricity production and coal extracted for steelmaking as like “comparing apples with oranges”.

Mr Starkie expressed his frustration at the way discussion over the west Cumbrian mine frequently blends the two distinct purposes of coal extraction.

“It’s creating a lot of misunderstanding about what the coal from Woodhouse Colliery is for,” Mr Starkie said.

The global move away from coal as a fuel source for generating electricity, Mr Starkie said, should not be used to invalidate the use of coal for steel production.

“I take no lessons from John Kerry, given that the UK is miles in front of the United States in the reduction of the use of coal for fuel,” Mr Starkie added.

“They’ve got a long way to go before they make the progress that the United Kingdom’s made.

“We’re making far more progress than America, and if there was more attention on countries like America and China reducing burning coal for fuel, that would be energy better expended than focusing so much attention on a mine where the coal is for the production of steel, and will actually go some way to producing the steel that will allow the continuing phase-out of the need for thermal coal.”

During Monday evening’s Newsnight interview, Mr Kerry said he believed the UK has a “very ambitious target” in terms of carbon emissions reductions, and noted that the use of coal for electricity generation “has been reduced in this country for a long period of time now”.

Mr Kerry also noted that the UK’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030 is “higher than Europe as a whole”.