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UK coal lives on

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World Coal,

A respected industrial historian recently claimed that Britain’s relationship with its coal industry had been one of the world’s worst cases of political and industrial strife for any leading nation in the post-war period. High subsidies, sector inefficiencies and labour disputes had led to political hostility and a consequent desire to reduce what was seen as a troubled industry on which the country had become over-dependent. Even after privatisation in 1994, policymakers still moved to deliver the final blow with environmental tax policies destined to end coal’s once dominant role in British electricity generation.

But what this sweeping and negative summary fails to cover is important. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the UK was behind some of the most advanced mining technological developments in the world. From mine design, coal treatment and handling, mine management and ‘clean coal’ research, the country enjoyed a clear and undisputed lead. Revolutionary and expensive ‘superpit’ projects, such as the design and sinking of the vast Selby mine complex, pioneering roof-bolting and the laboratory R&D advances of the British Coal Corp. were ground breaking and years ahead of their time. Sadly, much of this is now forgotten.

Figure 1. The new mine's surface buildings will be modern and low profile.

Though the vast bulk of this sector was devoted to the production of thermal coal for the once large (45 GW+) electricity supply industry, there was an important and high-quality metallurgical coal mining sector with hungry customers in the domestic and European steel sectors. But because of the over-emphasis on thermal coal development and extraction, a consequence of the sector becoming tightly intertwined with the electricity supply industry, the UK’s metallurgical coal resource was often overlooked. Until now.

Focus on metallurgical coal

The British metallurgical coal (also known as hard coking coal) resource is significant and of high quality. It is this prospect, as well as the growing markets in the recovering European steel making sector, that has prompted a pioneering British project to propose and seek to develop the UK's first new coal mine for 40 years.

West Cumbria Mining (WCM) is at the forefront of plans to produce some of the finest hard coking coal in the western hemisphere, with production starting at the end of the decade, subject to securing planning permission; exploratory drilling has delivered very positive results to date. Importantly, this coal production will not face the UK government’s high carbon taxes, which have penalised thermal coal-fired power plants, as it will be used in the steelmaking sector.

This distinction is very important; this is not an energy related project but a 50 year mining operation to supply the steel and iron making industries with high-quality metallurgical coal. Earlier this year, the British government described its struggling steel sector as a “vital strategic industry” that deserves support.

Figure 2. The legacy of mining on England's Cumbrian coast can still be seen.

WCM has secured the rights to extract metallurgical coal from the rich offshore coal seams of the Cumbrian coast in Northwest England. The company, led by Chief Executive Mark Kirkbride, plans to use two abandoned drift tunnels constructed to access a former anhydrite mine. These will connect the offshore coal resource with an abandoned industrial site onshore where modern low-profile coal treatment and handling buildings will be sited (Figure 1). An underground conveyor will move coal to a rapid rail loader situated on the existing coastal railway less than a mile from the site. Interestingly, WCM has its present day headquarters at the site of the last mine to close on the West coast at Haig, which overlooks the sea at Whitehaven, just a mile from the proposed new mine’s surface buildings, which will all be built on brownfield land.

The project is unique with regards to its local community stakeholder engagement process: as well as hosting regular public meetings, the company has provided an exhaustive new level of public consultation, with an honesty and openness that is likely to become a template for future best practice with similar mineral projects. The proposal is ambitious both in its design and output targets. It will use state-of-the-art technology and mining methods to achieve production of around 3 million tpy, aiming to deliver up to 2.5 million tpy of saleable metallurgical coal product. The target seams are high volatile hard coking coals (HV HCC). They are sought after by European steelmakers due their excellent furnace performance characteristics (very high fluidity) and extremely low ash and phosphorous content.

Planning consent is now being sought from local government bodies to take the initial development of the project to the next phase of what will be one of the major metallurgical coal mining operations in Europe. Local political figures strongly support the project, which will create more than 510 skilled mining, engineering and supporting jobs.

Bad headlines dominated the European steel sector in 2015 as Chinese dumping depressed prices to record lows, but there are now signs of growing stability and rising prices. WCM’s product would be a core component for incorporation within a blend of other types of metallurgical coals to be able to produce suitable coke for use in iron and steel production. Indeed, it is extremely similar in character to the premium hard coking coals mined in the eastern US, which are currently imported and consumed by the UK and European steel industry. The WCM coal is the equivalent of ‘US HV-A’ material, a key market benchmark coal for pricing purposes.

Consequently, the future global market outlook for HCC demand is key. World and European steel demand is set to grow significantly by 2030, particularly in the construction sector, but the forecast global HCC supply to meet such growth is unlikely to be met by operating and proposed new metallurgical coal mining projects. There is a real risk of a future global shortage in HCC supply with so few new mining projects being proposed. The WCM project offers timely and much welcome new high-quality production.

What next?

Forward planning by WCM has already identified a sea freight export facility in Northeast England, where its metallurgical coal destined for export can easily and quickly be shipped from the deepsea wharf at Redcar bulk terminal facility. This was, until recently, part of the vast SSI steelworks, which became an early victim of the collapse in world prices. This coal loading berth at Redcar is a direct and rapid rail journey from the proposed mine. WCM will also seek to supply metallurgical coal to UK steelworks, which are showing signs of recovery following the recent slump in output and prices.

The mine’s development and operation will be undertaken by bolter-miners and remotely operated continuous miners, working a partial extraction run-out and pocket retreat mining method. WCM argues that this method offers the greatest flexibility and can respond quickly to prevailing ground conditions to maintain consistent production levels, especially where multiple mining sections are operated.

Importantly, given local environmental considerations, the mine will have state-of-the-art low profile surface buildings to ensure minimum visual impact. This will be in stark contrast to the large headstock and winding gear of traditional mine buildings, which can still be seen in the area where they have been preserved as a monument to the area’s industrial legacy (Figure 2). There will be no tips of mine discard, as this will be transported from the site by rail and disposed of underground.

The old nationalised British Coal had a reputation for being high cost and subsidy hungry. WCM plans to finally exorcise this ghost and importantly change perceptions of the industry. The plan for a high production, low-cost underground metallurgical mine in a coalfield long abandoned can again put British mining on to the front foot. Indeed, the WCM project looks set to be heralded as a model of public engagement and openness by a company that has left no stone unturned in its desire to meet and explain its plans and aspirations to the local community.

Notably, the project has always strived to explain the significant difference between thermal coal and metallurgical coal. This is particularly important following the UK Energy Minister’s recent call for all coal-fired power plants to be shut down by 2025 at the latest. New plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) are now banned. But for anyone who might be planning to oppose the WCM project wearing the shirt of the environmental lobby, the WCM CEO Mark Kirkbride has a clear and simple answer: “to produce wind turbines, tidal barrages, hydro-electricity and nuclear power, you need high-grade steel; to manufacture high-grade steel you need good quality coking coal. We are a vital component in the future manufacturing sector and not an old fashioned industry”.


The author visited one of Britain’s last thermal coal mines at Hatfield just before it closed in 2015. It had been operating for 100 years and was both exhausted and increasingly uneconomic, with its markets under siege. The West Cumbria plans are both visionary and ambitious in that they will bring state-of-the-art mining operations back to the UK to supply a key strategic industry. Let us hope this is just the start of a new period where innovators again use the British coal resource for the good of industry, manufacturing and the wider economy.

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