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Cumbria coalmine is owned by private equity firm with Caymans base

West Cumbria Mining, which set up Whitehaven office during push for new mine, owned by EMR Capital

What is the Cumbrian coalmine and why does it matter?

An entrance to the former Woodhouse colliery for which West Cumbria Mining has been given permission to set up a new coal mine.

The former Marchon chemical works in Whitehaven, Cumbria, where West Cumbria Mining plans to open the UK’s first new coalmine in a decade. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Sandra Laville Environment correspondentThu 8 Dec 2022 16.20 GMTLast modified on Fri 9 Dec 2022 05.27 GMT

The first deep coalmine to be dug in the UK in a generation is ultimately owned by an international private equity company, with executives whose mining interests have stretched to Russia, Asia, Africa and across Australia.

West Cumbria Mining positioned itself as a local company with an office in Whitehaven, and promised it would provide jobs for people in the area, during its campaign for permission to extract 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year from the site.

But the owners of the company are based thousands of miles away. West Cumbria Mining itself is based in Sussex, according to Companies House, and ultimately owned by a private equity investment firm, EMR Capital, with a base in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

A view of Whitehaven in Cumbria, north-west England near the site of the proposed new coalmine.

Key people at the helm of EMR Capital were prominent in the Australian mining firm Oxiana, now OZ Minerals, and the Rio Tinto mining group. The executive chair of EMR capital is Owen Hegarty, who was a senior figure at Rio Tinto and founded Oxiana with Tony Manini, a founder of EMR Capital. Manini went on to create an Australian mining development firm, Tigers Realm Coal, which has been actively engaged in coal projects in Russia. Manini is the executive chair of Asiamet Resources, which is based in the tax haven of Bermuda, and is pursuing copper mining projects in Indonesia.

Daniel Therkelsen, of Coal Action Network, said the ownership structure could create problems, as it would be difficult for a local planning authority to hold a remote private equity firm to account. He said it could be hard to ensure that working conditions and environmental promises are upheld when the mine ceases to operate.

Mark Kirkbride, the chief executive of West Cumbria Mining, is described by EMR Capital as an executive who has worked with, or is well known to, the EMR team over many years.

Kirkbride is also a member of the committee on radioactive waste management, which the government says is an independent panel set up to give expert advice on the building of a nuclear dump for radioactive waste from past and future nuclear industry.

West Cumbria Mining is promoting the use of its coking coal in the UK steel industry, with the slogan: “Great coal, great steel, Great Britain.” However, the vast majority of the coal produced will be exported, because most UK steel producers have rejected the coal, which is high in sulphur and surplus to their needs. European steelmakers are also turning away from coal to pursue electric arc furnaces and renewable energy.

Criticism of the government approval of the mine, which will emit an estimated 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, equal to putting 200,000 extra cars on the road, continued to grow on Thursday.

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Dr Daniel Quiggin, a senior research fellow in the environment and society programme at the Chatham House thinktank, said: “The plans to export 80% of the coal shows the UK government is desperate for short-term economic gain, rather than preventing accelerating climate impacts which will devastate all our lives for generations to come.

“UK climate leadership has been replaced by the UK leading the world off the edge of the cliff.”

The Guardian has contacted EMR Capital for comment. West Cumbria Mining declined to respond to questions.

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