The announcement of the decision on a proposed surface mine near Druridge Bay in Northumberland has been postponed.
The Secretary of State Sajid Javid was due to announce the outcome of a 14-day public inquiry on Banks Mining’s proposals to extract three million tonnes of coal from the Highthorn site on or before Monday (March 5).
But in a letter to Banks, which has been obtained by the Gazette, Mr Javid says that 'he will not be in a position to publish a decision on the application by this date'.
The letter has been copied to Northumberland County Council, the Save Druridge campaign and Friends of the Earth.
In it, the Secretary of State adds: 'I realise this will be disappointing news, and apologise for the delay in issuing a final decision on this application. I can assure you that we will endeavour to minimise the delay as much as possible.'
Campaigners against the proposed mine presented Mr Javid with a petition of almost 20,000 names on Wednesday, February 21, calling on him to reject it, after the Secretary of State called in the approval by Northumberland County Council in September 2016.
Apart from the coal, Banks plans to extract 20,000 tonnes of fireclay and sandstone, over a five-year period with total operations lasting seven years, from a 325-hectare site near Widdrington and Druridge Bay.
Jeannie Kielty, community relations manager at The Banks Group, said: "We remain keen to progress our investment and job creation plans at Highthorn as soon as possible, and are therefore extremely disappointed at this further delay in being able to do so.
"Our Highthorn planning application has been specifically designed to bring a wide range of employment, supply chain, environmental, community, tourism, and economic benefits to the local area and wider region over the short, medium and long term.
"All businesses need clear guidelines and solid foundations on which to plan and execute the operations that will deliver such benefits, but having waited a little under two years since our plans were first unanimously approved, we now have no indication as to when the Secretary of State is going to decide whether we are to be allowed to proceed - and all the while, we are continuing to receive enquiries from energy generation and industrial customers about when the site is going to be opening.
"The simple fact remains that the UK still needs coal for a number of purposes, a situation that has been plainly demonstrated during the recent spell of cold weather, through which coal has been used to meet more than a quarter of the country's energy generation requirements and doubts have arisen about whether the UK actually has access to sufficient gas supplies to meet consumer demand.
"The Government’s own projections state that coal will continue to be an important part of the UK's energy mix for at least the proposed duration of operations at Highthorn, and the importance of its inclusion as an essential and resilient part of a balanced mix of energy generation sources in the UK over the medium term is clear.
"As a North East business which operates both surface coal mines and onshore wind farms, we're pleased to be continuing to contribute to meeting the UK's energy needs through using indigenous means of production during this very challenging time.
"We hope the Secretary of State will feel able to make a decision on Highthorn in the near future, and that the compelling case we made at the public inquiry for the original unanimous planning decision to be ratified will be accepted."