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Britain plans to phase out coal. Why then are there plans to open a new mine?


Britain is hosting the U.N. Summit on Climate Change in Glasgow next week. One of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's goals, he says, is to phase out coal. But the U.K. government is also considering a plan to open its first deep coal mine in decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt has this from West Cumbria in the north of England.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In the lead-up to the summit, Johnson's been clear.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We are committed to ending coal, running our cars on clean electricity and planting millions more trees.

LANGFITT: He says the time to act is now to avoid catastrophe, as he explained at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.


JOHNSON: We are approaching that critical turning point when we must show that we are capable of learning and maturing and finally taking responsibility. It's time for humanity to grow up.

LANGFITT: But the view 300 miles northwest of London is different. West Cumbria's economy relied on the mines before they closed, and local mayor Mike Starkie wants to bring coal back.


MIKE STARKIE: I am legitimately pleased to speak on behalf of our people, and the message is clear - give us our mine, give us our future.

LANGFITT: Cumbria County officials approved the mine overwhelmingly last year, but the U.K. government set up an inquiry amid outrage from environmentalists. Starkie told the panel in September that his community desperately needs jobs, and one coal mine won't make any difference to the planet. He points out that five countries - China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan - produce nearly 60% of all global CO2 emissions and the U.K., only 1%.


STARKIE: That's where the challenge lies. We've got to focus on where we can make the big gains, not little marginal gains that hardly register on the scale.

LANGFITT: John Ashton, who worked on climate change for six years in the British government, said the project could undermine the U.K.'s credibility.


JOHN ASHTON: If the mine goes ahead, we would be saying to the world, judge us by what we say and ignore what we do.

LANGFITT: But the company, West Cumbria Mining, insists the new mine won't increase global CO2 emissions. They argue that the mine, which would produce coal to make steel, is so close to European markets and will be so cost effective, it will drive competing American mines out of business and actually reduce U.S. coal production. Alexander Greaves is a lawyer for the company.

ALEXANDER GREAVES: The application before the inspector is a world-leading proposal to construct what we believe to be the first net-zero token (ph) coal mine.

LANGFITT: But Simon Nicholas, an Australian energy finance analyst who spoke on behalf of environmentalists, says those American mines will continue to operate as they meet growing demand from China.

SIMON NICHOLAS: I just thought it was plain wrong. I think perhaps they were getting a little bit on the desperate side.

LANGFITT: At the heart of the conflict is a tension between the need for global cooperation to reduce emissions and the economic costs those efforts could impose on poorer areas. The mine is expected to create 500 well-paying jobs. Suzanne Caldwell, who leads the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, says the community is split.

SUZANNE CALDWELL: Some people are very supportive. Some people are completely in the opposite direction and a lot of people are in the middle and actually quite conflicted even.

LANGFITT: I'm strolling along a shopping street here in Whitehaven. It's the town that would probably benefit the most from the new coal mine. I just passed a place where they buy gold, another a casino slots place, and now I'm looking at the band stand in the center and it's all peeling paint. So you can see that this is a place that has struggled for a very long time. Hi, excuse me. So are you for or against the coal mine?

JOHN WALLACE: I'm all for it, sir.

IAN SCOTT: It's essential for jobs in the economy. There isn't much else around here, apart from tourism.

NATHAN RYAN: It's a massive opportunity.

LANGFITT: That's John Wallace (ph), a former miner, a man named Ian Scott (ph) and Nathan Ryan (ph). He's 30 and works in ground maintenance.

RYAN: There's still ordinary people like me working ordinary jobs, and it's not right. You know, if the coal mine was open, I think there'd be jobs for everyone.

LANGFITT: Ryan earns as little as $250 a week.

RYAN: I know there would pay triple that. You know, I've already put application in with the mine, and I hope it all goes through.

JILL PERRY: The area has never really outgrown its industrial heritage.

LANGFITT: This is Jill Perry (ph), a retired teacher and secretary for the local Green Party. She's leading me through a muddy valley to see the path the coal - an estimated 2.7 million tons a year - will take out of here. A lonely train, just two carriages, runs along the route the company plans to use. Perry says after the coal mines closed here, leaders weren't able to replace all those good-paying jobs.

PERRY: People do want to hark back to the past. They do regard their heritage as something that can be revived.

LANGFITT: But she says that's not realistic.

PERRY: I mean, there was a mining museum, which closed because of lack of interest.

LANGFITT: Perry sees West Cumbria as an example of why tackling climate change can be so hard.

PERRY: I think it's replicated all over the world where people recognize the seriousness of climate change, but they think what needs to be done is important for everybody else to do it. It's very difficult to make people see that local action is really important on a global scale.

LANGFITT: John McGibbon is managing director of PAR Systems, which maintains robots and cranes to work in the nuclear power industry, the best source of good jobs here. He's felt the impact of climate change. In 2009, he was working at a seal and gasket factory when nearly 12 inches of rain fell in just 24 hours.

JOHN MCGIBBON: The river came over its banks. And suddenly, that river went from being 10 meters wide to being 200 meters wide and just spilled all over the flood plain.

LANGFITT: Water rushed into the factory.

MCGIBBON: I remember being - paddling in the water up to my waist in the middle of the night with guys helping out with diggers and things to try and barricade us in. But it was just a scene of devastation.

LANGFITT: How much did it cost the company, the damage?

MCGIBBON: I didn't see the final bill, but it's...

LANGFITT: What's your guess?

MCGIBBON: ...Well over $10 million. So it's a huge cost.

LANGFITT: Still, McGibbon supports the new coal mine.

MCGIBBON: The difference between the haves and the have-nots is very, very stark in the area. So we do need that investment in skills, investment in education and investment in well-paid jobs.

LANGFITT: Leading into COP26, how do you think this looks?

MCGIBBON: It looks ridiculous, to be honest. It should have either been approved long before this or shelved. So it does look very foolish on our entire country.

LANGFITT: The British government is not expected to make a final decision on the mine until next year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Whitehaven, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIVE CARROLL'S "SHINY WOODEN TOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.