Future of Coal in the UK

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:13 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington 2:13 pm, 3rd December 2020

First, let me declare my interest as a former British Steel employee some 20 years ago and having worked in the nuclear supply chain slightly more recently.

I represent a working constituency built on coal and steel. The title of this debate is the future of coal in the UK, but perhaps we should discuss the future of the UK without coal, because, frankly, it would look quite different from not only the world we live in now, but the world we need it to be. Economic growth and growth in demand for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place a much heavier weight on the use of UK-produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies we will rely on in the future are, without exception, underpinned by steel, and that steel production requires coking coal or metallurgical coal for the foreseeable future.

Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of steel and its process components will result in increases in both our domestic and offshore carbon footprints. While I wholly welcome the phasing out of coal in power generation in the UK, and the UK should celebrate its world-leading record on that, we must not let coal become a catch-all dirty word. We must differentiate between the burning of coal when other widespread technologies exist for the same purpose, and the industrial use of coal as a chemical element.

The UK and Europe import 16.4 million tonnes of coking coal every year, with CO2 emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it were produced closer to the point of use, such as at the planned Woodhouse colliery next door to my Workington constituency. It would be the UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years, bringing with it 500 well-paid jobs, while contributing to a reduction in our carbon footprint. It is shameful that the Opposition in this House and in local government seek to frustrate the opening of that mine, despite it having had cross-party development panel approval three times and having had a previous call-in rejected by a previous Secretary of State.

There is no commercial technology currently that can replace our reliance on coking coal. Electric arc furnaces are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but the primary feedstock for electric arc furnaces is recycled steel. While crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and world markets are not. It also fails to take into account the fact that scrap steel has to have exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most electric arc furnaces produce steel with a mixture of scrap steel and sponge iron. Again, sponge iron is currently reliant on natural gas or thermal coal.

Without a doubt, the Government should focus on helping every industry in the UK to develop innovative, clean technologies to solve all these issues, but it does none of us any favours to think that it can happen overnight or that it comes cheaply. Trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue, and some point to the intention to have a commercial hybrid plant running by 2026. Without touching on the feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such expensive energy-intensive replacements, hybrid is only for the production of sponge iron, and the problems in the process that follows remain. Coking coal is still necessary to encourage and enhance slag forming, which protects the furnace, makes the process more energy efficient and reduces nitrogen, which makes for brittle steel.

We have a significant opportunity to level up our constituencies across the UK if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base. Growing our economy and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions, and we must work harder and smarter to reduce our impact. My plea to the Minister and to anyone else who shares our aim of net zero by 2050 is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for a job well done in 2050 if we have got there on the back of steel or its component parts, such as coal, imported from halfway around the world. Let us get there as the UK does best. We have our eye on the finish line: let us emerge as the clear winner but having won fairly and squarely. I urge the Minister to ensure that UK coal is used to make UK steel, which is used to help Britain build back better.