Meet Charlie: The [Wannabe Low Carbon] Workington ‘Man’

By Ciara Shannon

I’ve been to Whitehaven and Workington a few times now – both are former mining towns in West Cumbria. I was interested, in part, having heard about the ‘Workington Man’ during the 2019 general election and I wanted a lay of the land of the proposed controversial £160m metallurgical coal mine – Woodhouse Colliery being developed by West Cumbria Mining (WCM).

Plus, I was wryly amused that their design looks a bit like a cousin of the Eden Project – gone over to the dark-side.


Meet Charlie in Workington

According to the sterotype of the 2019 general election drummed up by the Tories, they are about 45 years old, a leaver, ex-Labour who more recently has voted Conservative.

Let’s call them Charlie.

There has been coal mining in Workington for over 400 years and in the 1840s, the town became a coal mining powerhouse and steelworks flourished from the 1870s. Workington became one of the most important sites for UK steel production, until being decommissioned in the 1980s.

Following the loss of coal and steel on which it thrived, the whole area then faced crippling unemployment. These places have changed since, as many people left to find work elsewhere and the coal miners have gradually gone/ retired. Those that stayed are tight-knit, proud of their roots and deeply patriotic.

Today, many are employed in the nuclear industry in Sellafield and other industries include chemicals, cardboard, the docks, waste management and recycling old computers for export.

I’d say Charlie (she/he) probably knows that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change and that clean energy is the inevitable future. But, they could be concerned about what skills they’d offer to a green economy, their own job security and if only their kids would stop nagging them to go vegan!

Like most Cumbrians, they might have a deep awe of nature. On a weekend, they walk on the fells or along the West Cumbrian coast where they see the vast array of offshore wind farms.

They also might know that Cumbria has one of the UK’s highest tidal ranges with significant potential for energy generation. Plus, with so much peat, rain and fast flowing rivers here – there’s plenty of scope for peatland restoration and hydro. (See post – For Peat’s Sake)

Or perhaps not.

Taylor and Sam

Younger than Charlie is Taylor (a Millenial) with many years of work ahead of them and with young kids at home. Younger still is Gen Z Sam and both are more environmentally conscious than Charlie. According to a Purpose Pulse report, climate change topped the list of concerns for Millennials (aged 25 to 39) and Generation Z (aged 16 to 22). 71 % of Millennials and Generation Zer’s see it as the biggest challenge facing their generations.

Given the stats (similar across various research houses and across the UK), surely this top concern about climate change would be the same in Workington?

Has anyone asked them?

All of them – Charlie, Taylor and Sam will have a keen eye to the future and will be looking for quality jobs with a company that can be trusted and pays at the very least the median wage. Rather than work for a company marred in controversy, whose product is damaging to the atmosphere and reeks of old.

First Deep Coal Mine in 30 Years

What is certain, if given the green light (which we should hear about tomorrow), Woodhouse Colliery – just 10 miles from Workington – will be UK’s first deep coal mine built in more than three decades. Ironically, Britain’s last deep coal mine, North Yorkshire’s Kellingley Colliery, closed in December 2015 as part of plans for coal-fired power stations to be shut down by 2025.

If WCM goes ahead, it will produce about 2.7 million tonnes (which has recently gone up from 2.5 million tonnes on WCM’s website) of coking coal annually for the UK and European steel industry.

WCM’s coking coal will replace imports of it mainly from the US, Russia and Australia. Imports that decreased from 1.2 million tonnes in 2018 to 1.1 million tonnes in 2019.

If WCM goes ahead, emissions will result in ¬9 million tonnes of CO2e every year, almost 3 times Cumbria’s annual emissions at about 3.79 million tonnes C02e per year (BEIS, 2019).

From a possible start date in 2023 to 2049, this equates to a whopping 234 million tonnes of C02e.

Source: Dr Henry Adams. Also mentions that there is a big range of possible methane emissions and as it is not known if the % of methane will be removed – he used the Precautionary Principle.

Why then is WCM proposing and Cumbria Council about to approve such a risky, white elephant with a big sign of ‘stranded asset’ on its trunk?

One of the key points (in my mind) is not an objection to the need for steel as the world needs steel right now to prop it up. But that Cumbria/ UK doesn’t need to be digging up the heavily polluting coking coal to power the CO2 spewing, blasted blast furnaces that make steel.

While there is not yet an alternative to coking coal for blast furnaces – there is plenty of the stuff in the market – 30% overcapacity as I type. Plus, WCM’s business model relies on the fact that blast furnaces will be in use until 2049. Making it very likely that this project will become a stranded asset as game changing emerging steel technologies – such as hydrogen are likely to come on-line around 2030.

Before then, scrap metal is already being used in Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) (not blast) powered by renewables (and this process is about half of the GHGs of blast furnaces). But apparently there is not enough scrap to make this a viable alternative and whether or not to use scrap depends on the sector, economics and regulations.

The UK produces (has) about 10 million tonnes (p/yr) of scrap metal, but rather than keep it on these shores = 80% of it is exported to countries such as Turkey, India, Spain and Pakistan. This seems to me to be a wasted opportunity – keeping our scrap metal here is something the UK should be taking more leadership on.

Other decarbonising steel technologies can be put into two categories: Carbon Capture, Use and/or Storage (CCUS), and alternative reduction of iron ore such as Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) that use natural gas and hydrogen-based direct reduction processes and electrolytic reduction methods.

Arcelor Mittal (the world’s largest steel company) recently announced a landmark (for the steel industry) Net Zero target by 2050 and they plan to go down the H-DRI route, as well as use bio-energy, carbon capture usage and storage (BECCS) – as they see this as a way of providing carbon neutral steel. They think that smart carbon solutions such as CC(U)S are likely to happen sooner, despite the high costs.

But, watch the hydrogen space in the UK as the Government has committed £350 million to develop hydrogen, and this could increase in January 2021 when the Government releases its hydrogen strategy. A move to hydrogen will place downward pressure on demand and prices for metallurgical coal will go up and become even more uncompetitive.

In the UK, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has suffered from 15 years or so of prickly policy support; including the cancellation of two major competitions at the last moment. While, no commercial-scale plant has been built yet in the UK, this is set to change via the Government’s CCUS Action Plan (2018) and the £800 million infrastructure fund for at least two clusters, one by the mid-2020s; and a second by 2030.

Cumulative Emissions

I was also interested to read some of the UK’s academic climate experts (see below) point about cumulative emissions. They said the mine cannot be justified until 2049 in the hope that they will then stop in 2050. GHGs remain in the atmosphere for many years and it is the total, cumulative amount of GHGs that counts. Cumulative emissions add up annual CO2 emissions over time.

Cumulative Historical Emissions and Responsibility

I’ll add to this point. If Cumbria Council were to consider the cumulative emissions of Copeland (the local area of the mine) going back to say 1840 – its historical emissions are massive. In effect, as Copeland has significantly contributed to the climate problem of today – surely, now is the moment to honour its historical contribution to climate change and clean up its act. Not agree to a new C02 spewing deep coal mine that isn’t needed.

For too long, the focus of historical responsibility and Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) has been at the national level, but it is at the local and regional level where important carbon related decisions such as this mine are decided.

It’s not just Cumbria – all former industrial Councils across the UK should think about their historical emissions too.

West Cumbria also has the capability to become the UK’s green energy powerhouse, with its rich bounty of natural resources. Plus, on purely economic terms, I would question how many people in Workington would want to go back to working in fossil fuels – paid under the median rate. (see previous post)

Undeniably, employment opportunities are important to the area, but not jobs equalling 16,000 tonnes CO2e per yearper job (see below). When instead, 510 jobs can now easily be created in reneweables at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Equally important, is that the Council considers a just transition strategy that seeks to secure and protect the future and livelihoods of workers and communities and how they can best become low carbon.

Across the UK, developing net zero skills should be one of the top priorities if the UK is to meet its long term climate goals and seize the opportunities provided by emerging clean technologies.

I hope that Cumbria Council will rethink their recommendation to approve this mine and consider more deeply the multiple historical, economic, social and environmental risks, while ensuring quality jobs, the opportunities of just transition to low carbon and how Cumbria can benefit.

It is important that the Council considers these points now – long before the (non UK) private equity investors make their ‘exit’ and run for the hills in Asia. (See previous post)

And long before, the Council ends up fighting for their share of WCM’s remediation bond that protects the Council when the mine closes, but doesn’t protect the workers future.

Nor indeed – anyone else’s.

See my next post that gives an overview of the Oct 2 CCC planning meeting and decision.



  • See an overview of the proposed project on tonight’s news – 19 mins in. Interviews with Prof Rebecca Willis and Maggie Mason.

Additional Info

  • You can read here Green Alliance’s Case Against New Coal Mines (Jan 2020). Their report concludes that a new mine would hinder the development of low carbon alternatives to conventional steel production. What I also found interesting was the way the report estimated the annual salary remuneration against the commodity value of the coking coal that would be extracted. The report states that: “the carbon emissions would be around 16,000 tonnes CO2e per year per job for the lifetime of the mine. This compares with under seven tonnes of CO2e emissions per person per year in the UK at present, a figure which must fall to net zero by 2050. The carbon footprint of the salaries paid would be almost three quarters of a tonne of CO2 per £1 earned by the workforce (700kg CO2e per £).
  • To understand more about Cumbria’s emissions, see here a carbon baseline report done by Small World Consulting.

Recent Objections

  • You can read here SLACC‘s second objection. SLACC objects in the strongest terms to the Council’s continued insistence on the “substitution myth” to justify WCM’s stance that the GHG emissions from the “end-use” of the coal in steel making can be ignored, and that the proposed mine will have a ‘beneficial’ impact on global GHG emissions.
  • SLACC are also concerned that the Officers Report continues to underplay the speed with which European steel-making is working to turn away from Blast Furnaces and a large number of blast furnaces will be replaced by DRI plants with hydrogen injection by 2040 (not 2050). The background information collected does not support 2049 as an end date for the mine.
  • Evidence presented clearly shows that production of steel in the quality and quantity that is likely to be required by society, will not require significant use of metallurgical coal in the coming decades. This means that: the “do nothing” and “do something” scenarios in the EIA are still wrong; that perfect substitution will not occur; there will be additional GHG emissions, and there would be a significant adverse impact on global climate change, which should have considerable weight in the planning balance. 
  • SLACC are also concerned that the Council’s case on the need for, and economic benefit from this coal and as a result the Council’s argument of wholly exceptional circumstances that outweigh the acknowledged harm to Ancient Woodland is also unreasonable.
  • See here Dr Henry Adams (Oct 2) details on climate timelines and WCM’s emissions
  • See here Professor Paul Ekins (Oct 1) who states (for the second time) that the proposed coal mine is likely to result in considerable additional global carbon emissions and will hamper the development and deployment of low-carbon steel technologies
  • Here the Business Case Against the Coal Mine (29 Oct) – by Dunacan Pollard and Associates and Eden Works – framed around recommendations of the Task-Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)
  • Importantly, here (30 Sept) and here (18 Sept) advice from top climate experts and academics who do not agree that placing a condition on development, requiring the mine to cease operation in 2049, complies with the UK’s legal obligations on climate change. Namely, the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement.
  • They also say, the 2050 date for net-zero is the end point in a process, not a sudden halt. Emissions in the years leading up to 2050 are just as significant. GHGs remain in the atmosphere for many years and it is the total, cumulative amount of GHGs that counts. They are also concerned that the mine will damage the UK’s standing as a world leader in phasing out coal. This would be particularly unfortunate as the UK prepares for COP26 in 2021, a major objective of which must be to persuade other countries to turn away from this most polluting and GHG-intensive of fossil fuels,
This diagram nicely illustrates (though is a bit out of date) the difference between cumulative (over time) and annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of different countries. To the left are CO2 emissions from 1751 to 2006, to the right are the CO2 emissions in 2006. Illustration Credit: Science Photo Library