Thursday, 14 January 2021

Greta Thunberg's criticism of the Cumbrian coal project highlights her naivety

Environmentalist Greta Thunberg has criticised the government's decision not to intervene in plans for the UK's first deep coal mine in 30 years. The West Cumbria Mining development has led to protests by climate campaigners, including of course Extinction Rebellion, who have argued that the new mine, which will reportedly emit 8m tonnes of carbon annually, contradicts the UK’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 (posting of 12 October 2020).

Extinction Rebellion Cumbria staged a "climate change crime scene" outside the council in October (Source BBC)
Ms. Thunberg tweeted to her 4.4 million followers last week "The UK government has decided not to intervene with the plans of opening a brand new English coal mine. This really shows the true meaning of so called “net zero 2050”. These vague, insufficient targets long into the future basically mean nothing today".

Her tweet has prompted hundreds of comments, the majority applauding her stand but not all, thankfully. Many of them appreciate why this mine is being developed but their comments are often met with blatant abuse from those totally ignorant of the difference between thermal and metallurgical coal.  

West Cumbria Mining plans to mine under the seabed to extract around 2.7m tonnes of metallurgical coal annually, which is essentially, and solely, for use within industry and not for power stations. Steel and chemical factories in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and Port Talbot are expected to utilise the mine's output, with the company arguing that the coal will replace imports and will not increase emissions because it will not be shipped over from the US, Canada, Russia and Australia. 

What Greta Thunberg, and other extremists with limited technological knowledge, do not realise is that achieving a carbon-free society will require vast quantities of raw materials to build the electric vehicles and wind turbines of the future, and the most essential material will be steel, the ubiquitous alloy used in construction. A single wind-turbine, for instance, requires well over 300 tonnes of steel, and to make steel we need metallurgical coal from which we produce coke for the iron blast furnaces.

Although environmental considerations are driving the introduction of new technologies, blast furnace related technologies for the production of pig-iron are still by far the most common methods for ironmaking and are predicted to be the single largest process until 2050. The blast furnace is reliant on a plentiful supply of coke, the hot air blast oxidising the coke to carbon monoxide, which reduces the iron ore, hematite, to pig-iron, a very brittle alloy, containing around 4% carbon. Liquid pig-iron is then refined in oxygen converters, which reduce the carbon content to a value dependent on the use for the steel, 'mild steel', which is used for general engineering applications, having a carbon content of round 0.2%.

It is unlikely that technologies that do not use liquid pig iron will dominate in the coming decades, and ore, coal and limestone will remain the main raw materials used to make pig-iron. Existing technologies that produce liquid pig-iron outside the blast furnace are considerably inferior to blast furnace smelting with respect to productivity and integral total fuel consumption, which includes the fuel costs incurred to produce coke, agglomerated ore-bearing materials, hot blast air, and oxygen. The blast furnace process is also the leading technology in terms of the scale of production and has the lowest production costs. 

So it may seem paradoxical, but mining of coal is essential in the quest for a zero-carbon society. Metallurgical coal is required to produce steel, but it is rarely appreciated that fossil fuels, whether from coal or gas, will also be needed for some time yet, in order to help build the electric vehicles and wind turbines of the future. There just aren't enough renewable sources of energy at present to provide the energy to mine and extract the necessary raw materials and to manufacture the multitude of renewable energy devices and electric vehicles which are proposed.

We have talked a lot on the blog about educating mining sceptics, but the unfortunate thing is that those that we really need to educate are often those with the highest profile, who attract hordes of unthinking followers. 



  1. Dear Barry,
    thank you very much for this wonderful contribution seeking clarification with a progressive mindset and delivering the facts. I am wondering if this will be visible on the same level as the other contributions in the debate, may it be short sighted anti- or pro positions. And for sure this debate, going far beyond just this one operation but really deep into the big questions of the future, needs many such clear fact based contributions lik yours.
    Even though I entirely agree with your explanations for the need of many mining operations as an important if not essential part of the energy transition and towards a future with a net zero CO2 emission I would also like to express that I am in support of Fridays for Future and brave youngsters fighting for a better tomorrow. It is for sure our task to get the facts right and your contribution is a great example of this task of ours. Yet, I believe that without the young kids having been protesting we would not have seen such a turn in policies which are now (even though too slowly) leading to the changes in society and industry and supporting the energy transition and circular economy, even though this important awareness has suffered due to Covid having taken over the news, despite 2020 having been another record breaking year with respect to clear signs of man-made global warming.
    I will even like to provocotively say that I think there is the right for the extinction rebellion voices to be heard. One part of their story is that all of us should think of reducing our consumptions and with that carbon and raw materials footprint. Why do so many people still believe in the economic growth myth, this indeed needs to stop, because this also scientfically does not make sense. It also does not make sense to replace every fossil fuel powered car with an electrically driven one, including fuel cell (btw. the next big deal after Lithium Ion Batteries). I will stop here now, because then this quickly would lead this debate into a way too political one. As I said I just wanted to provoke.
    Finally, I hope I did not turn my support for your clear factful statements into an anti position, which would not have been my intention. I will certainly do my best to spread your message, which as you know very well goes along with the narratives of our activities in Freiberg.
    Best wishes,

    1. Many thanks Martin for your thoughtful and honest views on a sensitive topic. I agree with you that people such as Greta Thunberg have highlighted the existential problems facing the planet, but sometimes they do themselves a disservice by not grasping the facts, thus leaving themselves open to criticism, and sometimes ridicule. The Cumbrian coal mining development is a prime example of this.

  2. Is there a shortage of metallurgical coal?

    1. I don't know, but presumably the demand is there or they would't be mining it.

  3. With so few active mining operations, the UK must be importing all it's met. coal at the moment.

    1. Which is why the Cumbrian mine is so important Sam.

  4. Hi Barry, Well argued as usual, with the point that reaching the required readership is elusive. I have noted before that several university colleagues seem unaware of the essential use of metallurgical coal. I like the paradox you note at the end.
    James A. Finch, Gerald G Hatch Professor Emeritus in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, McGill University, Canada

    1. Thanks Jim for highlighting the paradox. It is this need for fossil fuels to provide a carbon-free society that many do not understand

  5. Many mineral engineers are not familiar with coal-- so let me say a bit about coal.Coal is not considered  a mineral because it is organic  while minerals are inorganic and have definite physical and chemical properties.
    Powerful people have their own way and metallurgists have their own way of thinking about coal.
    Coal is a beautiful word-carbon/oxygen/anthracite/lignite--that shows --properties vary from lignite to anthracite as maturity of formation takes place.
    For a mineral engineer like me--since the techniques used to beneficiate ores and coal are same-so we should  give equal importance to coal and mineral.
    We in India noted this as early as 1977 and started a B. Tech program in Mineral Engineering at Indian School of Mines, teaching both on minerals and coal
    KING COAL will be there as long as we need energy for power generation/metal extraction/cement industry and so on.
    We have to innovate to handle emissions--if scientists and technologists are showing a way in developing a vaccine for corona in such a short time--why can't we find a solution to the emissions. I ask that why not look at breaking C of O; please do not immediately say that it is expensive, etc. etc.--that is where innovation comes--make something technically feasible and then make that economically viable.
    For me. Minerals and coal would continue to play very significant role in any development activity--may it be health/agriculture/infrastructure and so on.!

    1. I'm sorry but the etymology of coal has nothing do with with those words.

  6. Hi Barry,

    I read with interest your post about the new coal mine project in England and how Greta and her followers have reacted. It is a sensitive subject, but deserves some discussion.

    I do agree that, as we move forward into the future, youth should have progressively more say about what may be the form of that future as they add years to their lives. It's about learning to make good decisions, not emotional ones. And about constructive engagement rather than political protest. And, indeed, we could and should do more to reduce the pollution that we produce. But youth have to learn to form opinions through the gathering of facts, discarding speculation and fiction, and fill any knowledge gaps.

    Many of the new environmentally friendly technologies need to be seen in a holistic manner, as you have so aptly pointed out. To produce steel for the wind farms, we need coal to make steel. Plus several of the new environmental technologies are still embryonic and need much more development; take for example the electric car, a good idea, but those commercial models now available are more expensive than the petrol equivalent model. And we still have to generate extra electricity to charge their batteries, so what does the full circle calculation tell us about reducing pollution (from car exhausts) by generating more power (from coal-fired power stations)? It leads us straight to the nuclear power station of which Mr Average walks in fear. So there is still some work to do there; however we are all optimistic and supportive that the technology of the electric car will one day mature into a viable platform. Let us focus our attention there instead of politically protesting about the environment. Yet another young but exciting clean environment technology that has recently developed is the Australian recycling of plastics to produce a range of oil products using a form of the autoclave. This could have a huge impact on plastic pollution, but needs more support and encouragement to further develop the technology and deliver it at an industrial scale.

    Your points about educating those who protest in the ways of metallurgical processing are correct. To these I would add that, generally, the type of junior and high school education being delivered in these times differs materially from that which our generation received, in that our education:

    was fundamentally-driven, and spoke to the "why" as much as the "what"

    encouraged us to think for ourselves and form an opinion based on the facts (which, if not immediately to hand, we were taught how to go and find them ourselves before taking up an opinion)

    taught us that some people actually fail before they succeed, and learn from that

    taught us the saying "until proven otherwise", i.e. we took up an open-minded view.

    As a result, for example, in our generation, elections receive our serious thought and research before we vote. In the same context, the press have too much influence on national and international matters because too many people in society are too easily convinced that "because it was published on the internet, or in the newspaper or broadcast on the TV, it must be 100% true". Is this an educational issue, or is it one of a modern culture? Whatever the answer to that question may be, modern society with its complex dynamics needs more thinking-based decisions in forming an opinion. Dogma has no place in reasoning.

    I wish you and yours well in 2021 , with plenty of successful vaccination,

    All the best

    Norman O. Lotter, President and Consulting Engineer, Flowsheets Metallurgical Consulting Inc., Sudbury, Canada

    1. Thankyou for this Norm. I agree totally with what you say. The future is in the hands of the next generation, and while they must be encouraged to highlight existential threats, we must endeavour to temper their fervour where necessary by pointing out the hard facts. Something the media do not do when it comes to zero carbon etc - never any mention of the role of the mining industry and the pressure on providing the raw materials needed to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars etc.

      Only today Sky News reported that two teenage climate activists were in week two of a hunger strike over the new Cumbria coal mine. The youngsters, who met through previous protests, say they want to draw attention to the impact of fossil fuels on the climate. The UK's Critical Minerals Association responded by saying "A single wind-turbine requires well over 300 tonnes of steel, and to make steel we need metallurgical coal' and drew the reporter's attention to this blog post- probably to no avail though.

      Regarding energy, nuclear is the obvious option as you say, but fission after Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the waste disposal problem, has made this a dystopian option in the minds of many. Great strides are now being made with fusion reactors. The engineering problems are immense, but I would not mind betting that by 2050 wind turbines will be things of the past.

      Thanks again Norm, and hope to catch up again in better times.

  7. There was something about this on Radio 4 last night and repeated today, it might have been "Question Time". Disappointing to hear some of the speakers admitting they knew nothing about the subject. That didn't stop them contributing, although they obviously didn't understand the difference between met coal and thermal coal. Only heard one brief comment from somebody trying (and failing) to make the point that coal was effectively a "process chemical" in ironmaking - not just a fuel.

  8. In my 2-page article "Coke Engineering" published in International Journal of Engineering Technologies and Informatics (2021) [] I attempted to show that producing coke from coal is an essential process in metallurgy to make iron in the blast furnace from which steel is produced. Steel is of course essential to our civilization. Producing coke from coal is accompanied by the production of chemicals such as aqueous ammonia and elemental sulfur. Further in this process, producing coal tar is accompanied by a myriad of chemicals like benzene, naphthalene, anthracene, etc. Unfortunately, some are promoting the production of iron using hydrogen - - hydrogen being produced by electrolysis of water. See for example, Power vol. 164, No. 10, October 2020, page 13 "Swedish Companies Jointly Explore Hydrogen-Based Production of Steel".

    Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Canada

  9. The debate on the Cumbrian Coal project still rages on in the media, mostly ill-informed with little knowledge of what metallurgical coal is and what it is used for. The BBC is stoking the antagonism via its Environmental Analyst who also appears not to know why this form of coal is so important to "greening" society. This morning's headline on its website was "Boris Johnson 'risks humiliation' over coal mine".

    In your well-reasoned posting you concluded "We have talked a lot on the blog about educating mining sceptics, but the unfortnate thing is that those that we really need to educate are often those with the highest profile, who attract hordes of unthinking followers".

    Giles Coren is a good example of this. He has a thrice weekly column in The Times and has over 220K Twitter followers, but considering his column on January 26th, it is perhaps appropriate that his weekly podcast for Times Radio is titled "Giles Coren Has No Idea".

    He wrote, under the heading "Only Fossils think a coal mine is a good idea":

    "Robert Jenrick, the housing and communities minister who helped Richard Desmond dodge up to £45 million in community taxes on a new housing development after sitting next to him at a Conservative fundraising dinner, has now, it was revealed at the weekend, greenlit the first new deep coalmine in Britain for 30 years.

    It is a tiny bit more complicated than that but, essentially, at a time when we’re all congratulating Grampa Biden for bringing the US back into the Paris agreement, when the abandonment of fossil fuels is our children’s only hope for a secure future and when I have just spent north of fifty grand on an electric Jag, this gurgling Tory halfwit has — to the impotent dismay of Boris Johnson’s new “climate tsar”, Alok Sharma — okayed a £165 million plan to smash virgin coking coal from thousands of feet below the Irish Sea. As Greta Thunberg has rightly said, Jenrick’s actions show that Britain’s commitment to go carbon-neutral by 2050 “basically means nothing”.

    Which leaves me wondering just one thing. Who the hell did Robert Jenrick sit next to this time? JR Ewing? Thanos? Mr Burns out of The Simpsons? Or did Conservative Central Office somehow finally get hold of a coveted home number for Satan himself?"

    How DO we educate these people?

    Dr. Janice Stringer, Durham, UK

    1. Thanks for this Janice. I also saw the smug and condescending article by Giles Coren, and yes Giles, it is a tiny bit more complicated than that!

      I wrote to The Times in response to the article, an abbreviated version of this posting. Not surprisingly it was neither acknowledged nor published.

    2. In his column of today Giles Coren writes:
      Last week in my notebook column I expressed concern about the digging of Britain’s first deep coalmine for 30 years and was pilloried in comments below the line for failing to grasp that this was coal for steel-making, not fuel, that if we didn’t dig up the coal we’d only have to import it, for believing the preposterous lefty blither about human behaviour having anything to do with deleterious climate change and for having sex with trees. Well, plans for the mine have now been suspended. So, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyaaaaah.

      Says it all really!

  10. More news on the radio yesterday about the Cumbrian coal mine project. Planning permission has been withdrawn.

    There was a comment about "reviewing further evidence" on emissions, but this looks more like caving in to all the ill-informed comments, with so much confusion between thermal coal and met coal.

    I think the planning authority are being weak. The permission was properly given, the Government didn't "call it in" for review. I'm reminded of the Whitby Potash project (Sirius) where local support overwhelmed the opposition. This seemed to surprise the planners and permission was granted. I thought that was good news for the industry, so I'm sorry to see the way things are going in Cumbria

    1. I think is was inevitable Sam. Virtually all the media reports are about 'climate change' rather than explaining the need for metallurgical coal to produce steel and hence wind turbines.

      The article in this morning's The Times does explain what the project is (was) about, and that the coal would not be thermal coal. Last night's BBC report on the national news did not mention this however, just harped on about emissions and climate change- par for the course unfortunately.

  11. The upside is that commodities, including electricity, will become more expensive with the shortage of raw materials. In turn, higher costs will make people less wasteful – at least, I hope.
    Hanna Horsch


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