Highthorn: Council witnesses on ecology and climate change

.
.

The impacts of the proposed Highthorn opencast mine on ecology and climate change were discussed this morning at day five of the planning inquiry.

The hearing into The Banks Group’s controversial surface-mine scheme near Widdrington and Druridge Bay started last Wednesday, at Kingston Park in Newcastle. A decision is likely to follow in about three months’ time.

Previous days have seen company representatives give evidence on topics such as landscape and visuals, ecology and climate change, before the focus turned to planning policy yesterday – with the interpretations of how national and local policies should be applied likely to be a fairly key argument in the final outcome.

Today saw witnesses being called on behalf of Northumberland County Council, which is defending its decision, in July last year, to approve the scheme, before it was called in by Secretary of State Sajid Javid.

First up was David Feige, the local authority’s ecologist, who concluded that the restoration and habitat creation offered through the Highthorn is a ‘very, very significant opportunity and it’s very well-aligned with local and national conservation goals’.

Earlier in his evidence, he said: “It’s important to understand why active surface mines do support a range of wildlife. It’s a huge area of land which is strictly controlled so it is not disturbed by rights of way or agricultural workings. Parts of the site are heavily disturbed by operations, however, parts of the site are free from disturbance for weeks or even months at a time.”

Under cross-examination from the Save Druridge representative on his level of certainty about the effectiveness of the mitigation in relation to yellow wagtails, Mr Feige said: “I think we can be sure because the needs of these birds are very well understood. We can have a very high degree of certainty.”

Asked if there was still a risk of negative impacts compared to leaving the site as it is, Mr Feige said: “A minor agricultural change could make a difference so you can’t assume that the base level will always be what it is now.”

In response to a question as to whether the other alleged detrimental impacts were outweighed by the ecological benefits, Mr Feige simply said that he had been asked to give evidence on ecology so he would reserve his comments to that.

The inquiry’s attention then turned to climate change and the evidence provided by Julie Gartside, a consultant on behalf of Northumberland County Council. Friends of the Earth has previously called Alon Carmel to give evidence on the same topic.

Ms Gartside’s evidence suggested that Highthorn would be in line with government policy, despite a desire to phase out coal-fired power stations and drives to reduce carbon emissions, as the lifespan of the surface mine (seven years) would be within likely timescales and given the fact that replacing imported coal with coal from Highthorn would reduce transport emissions.

She said that energy decisions would be based on balancing the ‘trilemma’ of security, price and climate change.

Ms Gartside also said that she believes coal use will be phased out between 2022 and 2030, but it depends on government policy. Under cross-examination by Paul Brown QC, for Friends of the Earth, she did concede that if it was as early as 2022, it would be before the end of operations at Highthorn, but added there may be demand from heavy industry after that point.

She also agreed that while there would be a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions if coal imports from Colombia and Russia were directly replaced by Highthorn coal, this reduction would be dwarfed if Highthorn simply led to a larger supply of coal.

Ms Gartside was asked several times by Mr Brown as to how much weight the Secretary of State should put on reduced transport emissions if the Highthorn coal replaced imports and she would only say that reducing global emissions is ‘in the spirit of what government policy is trying to achieve’.

The public inquiry is being chaired by a planning inspector, who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, who can then choose to reject these recommendations and will have the final word on the fate of the application.

The proposals are for the extraction of three million tonnes of coal and a total of 20,000 tonnes of fireclay and sandstone over a five-year period with total operations lasting seven years, taking account of the time to set up the site and complete restoration.