LONDON (AP) — Environmental groups on Wednesday welcomed a decision by Britain’s Conservative government to lift its opposition to onshore wind farms. But they warned that any benefit would be erased if the government backs plans to open the U.K.’s first new coal mine in three decades.
Thursday is the deadline for a decision on the proposed mine in the Cumbria area of northwest England. Opponents say approving it will obliterate the U.K.’s image as a world leader in replacing polluting fossil fuels with clean renewable energy.
Wind produced more than a quarter of the U.K.’s electricity in 2021. But the Conservative government has since 2015 opposed new wind turbines on land because of local opposition. A majority of Britain’s wind farms are at sea.
While running for the Conservative Party's leadership in the summer, Rishi Sunak, who is now prime minister, pledged to keep the ban. But amid growing calls for change from Conservative lawmakers, the government said Tuesday it could allow wind farms in areas where communities support them, pending a “technical consultation.”
“Decisions on onshore wind sites will continue to be made at a local level as these are best made by local representatives who know their areas best and are democratically accountable to the local community,” the government said in a statement.
Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green Party lawmaker, said ending the ban on onshore wind was welcome, though “the devil is in the detail.”
“But if this is meant to ‘buy off’ giving the greenlight to the Cumbria coal mine later this week, it would be totally & utterly shameless,” she wrote on Twitter.
Britain has taken steps to bolster its domestic energy supply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil and gas prices soaring. The U.K. imports little Russian oil or gas, but its lightly regulated energy market leaves customers highly exposed to price fluctuations.
Many homes and businesses have seen bills double or triple in the past year, though a government price cap — due to end in April — has prevented even steeper hikes.
Environmentalists and some local residents have strongly opposed plans for a mine that would extract coking coal — a type used to make steel rather than for fuel — from under the Irish Sea and process it on the site of a shuttered chemical plant in Whitehaven, a town 340 miles (550 kilometers) northwest of London.
Opponents say the mine would undermine global efforts to phase out coal and make it harder for Britain to meet its goals of generating 100% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“With the mine’s particular type of coal no use for the U.K. power or steel industries and the U.K. having led the global campaign to phase out coal, a lot rides on (Cabinet Minister) Michael Gove’s decision,” said Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a nonprofit organization.
Supporters say the mine would bring much-needed jobs to an area hard hit by the closure of its mines and factories in recent decades.
The invasion of Ukraine has made countries across Europe reconsider plans to cut their use of fossil fuels. Britain has also approved more North Sea oil and gas drilling, while the Czech Republic reversed a plan to stop coal mining in a key region.
France recently restarted a shuttered coal plant, abandoning an earlier vow by President Emmanuel Macron to close all coal-burning plants in the country by the end of this year.
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