Permission for a new UK coal mine could be revoked after the local authority that approved the plans last year said it would review the decision.
The shift follows mounting criticism that the new colliery in north-west England would run counter to the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Labour-run Cumbria county council said on Tuesday it had decided to reconsider the planning permission given in October because the project could breach the UK’s target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Campaigners and opposition politicians have accused Boris Johnson’s Conservative government of hypocrisy after promising to promote an ambitious green agenda.
The UK prime minister is hosting the latest round of global climate talks, COP26, in Glasgow in November. The Climate Change Committee (CCC), which advises the government, warned last month that approval of the mine would leave a “negative impression” on the country’s climate priorities.
Cumbria council cited a CCC report published in December 2020 for its decision to reconsider the application for the first deep coal mine in the UK in 30 years.
The mine was given the green light last month after Robert Jenrick, the local government secretary, declined to “call in” the application following Cumbria’s approval. The latest move means that even if the council approves it again, Jenrick would be able to block it.
“The government will make sure they stop it,” said David Southward, a Labour member of Cumbria council. “The prime minister will look ridiculous if he goes to this conference and tries to tell the world he’s a leader in climate change when he’s agreed to a new mine.”
Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, and Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, have both opposed the £160m Woodhouse Colliery project near Whitehaven.
Cumbria council said the CCC report comprised “new information” that warranted a second look at the application, which had not yet received a formal sign-off.
“The report, among other things, sets out the volume of greenhouse gases the UK aims to emit during 2033-2037. This new information has been received prior to the issue of the formal decision notice on the application. In light of this the council has decided that the planning application should be reconsidered by the development control and regulation committee,” it said.
The planned colliery would produce coking coal for use in steel works and replace imports, according to its developer West Cumbria Mining, and be scheduled to close in 2049, just ahead of the net zero emissions target date.
The mine would extract about 2.4m tonnes of coal annually to supply blast furnaces in Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire, Port Talbot in south Wales, and overseas.
Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, warned in his letter to Jenrick that the emissions from the pit were “greater than the level of annual emissions we have projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050”.
There is strong local support for the project in Copeland, the Cumbrian borough that is the site for the pit. Conservative MP Trudi Harrison and Mike Starkie, the elected Tory mayor of Copeland, said in a joint statement they were “dismayed” by the council’s decision.
“The decision has been made time and again, based on the forensic details the planning committee had in front of them, and the decision has repeatedly been to approve this important development.”
They added that the government’s position had been that the decision was “best made locally”.
“We have championed — and lobbied — for this development and will continue to do so more strongly than ever,” the MP and mayor said.
West Cumbria Mining did not respond to a request for comment.