Ministers will decide this month whether to give the green light to plans for the UK’s largest coalmine after years of fierce opposition from environmentalists.
A letter from the government’s lawyers, seen by the Guardian, said the government will draw a line on the protracted battle to develop an opencast mine at Highthorn in Northumberland by giving a verdict on the plans by Tuesday 7 April.
The decision is expected over four years after the Banks Group, a Durham-based infrastructure firm, first put forward its plans to produce 3m tonnes of coal from the opencast mine for Britain’s steel and cement sector.
The company’s lawyers wrote to the government earlier this month demanding a decision on the “vital” coal project, saying it could help meet the “important national need for industrial coal”.
A spokesman for the company added that the “corona crisis” could threaten the UK’s imports, although there is no evidence that coal shipments have been impacted so far.
The UK’s reliance on coal to generate electricity has fallen to record lows in recent years but the fossil fuel is still used to make steel and manufacture cement, requiring imports of coal from Russia and the US.
The UK used 7.9m tonnes of coal last year, down by a third from the year before according to official figures, while domestic coal production fell to record lows of 2.9m tonnes.
Environmentalists are strongly opposed to the plans to open new mines in the UK while it moves towards a ban on coal-fired electricity from 2025.
Tony Bosworth, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “It is distastefully opportunistic to use a public health crisis to argue for a new coalmine.”
“Coronavirus is rightly the world’s priority right now, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to make another crisis worse. And to deal with the climate emergency we need to leave the vast majority of the world’s coal in the ground,” he added.
The plan was rejected two years ago by Sajid Javid, the former minister for communities and local government, after an 18-month review concluded that the environmental impact of the mine would outweigh its economic benefits.
The decision was overturned by the High Court eight months later after a judge ruled that Javid’s reasoning for disregarding the support of the planning inspectorate, which backed the project, was “significantly inadequate”.
The Banks Group argues that mining coal domestically would have a smaller carbon footprint than importing coal by sea and rail. The same argument was put forward in favour of UK shale gas development, but failed to win over energy ministers who announced an indefinite moratorium on all fracking in England last year.
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