Campaigners from the environmental group Coal Action Network have begun a legal challenge against plans to expand the Aberpergwn mine in Wales, after it was given the green light to mine a further 40 million tonnes of coal in January last year.
Campaigners told the court at the Cardiff Justice Centre on Wednesday that the Welsh government had the authority to prevent the licence being issued under the Wales Act 2017, principally because such licenses have to satisfy planning permissions, over which the Welsh government has control.
The group also argued that the government holds power over the conditions of the licence, and would be able to intervene should the mine’s operations change significantly, such as the start of an expansion project. The Welsh government maintains that the original licence for the mine was issued before it had authority over it.
Campaigners argued in court that the Coal Authority, the UK coal regulator, should have considered the Welsh government’s emissions reductions targets before granting the licence. The Welsh government has admitted that the mine expansion is incompatible with its own net-zero targets and acknowledgement of the climate emergency.
Energybuild, the company that runs the Aberpergwm mine, said that most of the coal extracted would not be burned, but used instead in processes such as water purification. However, the Welsh government has said that it has no power over how the coal would be used, so there is no guarantee the coal would be used in this manner.
Confusion over responsibility
In January last year, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas condemned the planned expansion, saying: “It is unbelievable and utterly shameful, especially when the UK still retains the presidency of UN climate change body COP.” She added that the situation is “made worse by the farcical dispute between the UK and Welsh governments over who has the power to cancel the licence.”
Coal Action Network first began campaigning against the mine’s licence in December 2021, and legal action against the expansion was confirmed in July last year. However, disagreement over who, between the Welsh and UK governments, is responsible for the licence has persisted.
Coal Action Network spoke to Welsh minister Lee Waters who “insisted” that his government did not have the power under the Wales Act 2017 to halt the mine expansion.
He also said via the BBC that he had urged the UK government to reverse the expansion, adding that Welsh ministers “have a clear policy of stopping using fossil fuels”.
Speaking in the Senedd, Waters also said in November 2021: “Unless the UK government agree to our request to cancel a licence granted in 1996 at Aberpergwm, some 40 million tonnes of coal will be extracted from this mine by 2039, [equivalent to] a hundred million tonnes of carbon dioxide.”
However, the UK government said that final responsibility for licensing the mine lies with the Welsh government and not the UK secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. This is despite the UK government holding supervision power over the Coal Authority.
The hearing at the Cardiff Justice Centre is set to last for two days.