“How did absurd claims about a climate-neutral coalmine gain a foothold in this debate?” asked an article in the Guardian in May 2021, published just before the start of the second public inquiry into the proposed mine.
Perhaps I should make it clear from the outset that I am a retired geologist and I spent many years working in the coal industry, but I have no economic interest in the proposed new mine in Cumbria.
How can a coal mine possibly be beneficial for climate change?
An alternative question might be, ‘How absurd is it that we transport coking coal for many thousands of miles to use in steel making in this country, when we could mine it here and save global greenhouse gas emissions?’
So how did I come to my own independent ‘absurd’ conclusion that rather than being climate neutral, the proposed new coking coal mine would have a beneficial impact on the global emissions of greenhouse gases?
West Cumbria Mining argue that production from the new mine will displace coking coal imports from overseas, mainly USA, Australia, and previously Russia. Following the war in Ukraine, Russian coking coal imports (710,000 tonnes in 2019, nearly a third of imports) may be subject to sanction, and continued steel production in the UK may require that the sanctioned Russian imports be replaced by coking coal from other sources, such as the proposed mine in Cumbria.
Can we also make a clear distinction between thermal coal and coking coal? The former is predominantly used to generate heat in power stations, and other industrial applications, particularly cement manufacture, while the latter is a type of coal with special chemical and physical properties that many coals do not possess. Coking coals are not uniformly represented in the world’s coalfields and must be mined where they do occur.
Alternative methods of ‘green’ steel production which will not require coking coal are being developed. Some of these technologies have reached prototype status but production by these methods to scale is some way off, the above mentioned Guardian article suggests 15 to 20 years.
The EU produces about 40 percent of its steel by the electric arc furnace (EAF) method, for the UK this figure is approximately 20 percent. This may be attributed to a more mature circular economy of the scrap steel required for the EAF process and/or the greater availability of hydroelectric power in Europe.
Surge in coking coal price
The EU regularly releases a list of what it considers critical raw materials (CRMs) using the parameters of resilience, autonomy, security-of-supply, and criticality.
“Critical Raw Materials are essential for the EU to deliver on the climate ambition of the European Green Deal. The objective of no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 will require electrification efforts and the diversification of our sources of energy supply which in turn requires a huge increase in raw materials.”
Of the (large number of) raw materials assessed, 30 were identified as critical in this (2020) assessment.
Included on the EU CRM list for 2020 is coking coal. A large surge in demand for coking coal following the pandemic has seen prices rise to more than $A400 a tonne – more than triple its early 2020 price. The largest input cost for several of the world’s steel mills is now coking coal, having overtaken iron ore.
Amongst its many uses, steel is used in civil engineering such as building wind turbine structures. This suggests that the need for steel will increase, particularly in the short term to enable the demands of the energy transition, fortunately steel is recyclable.
Transporting coking coal emits harmful greenhouse gases
In 2019, 2.1 million tonnes of UK’s coking coal imports came from Australia, the USA, and Russia, which means the imports travel approximately 32,000km. The CO2 cost of using this amount of coking coal, using IPCC’s own figures, is approximately 5.6 M tonnes, the figure will be the same for imported or domestic coal. Using an estimated 3.8gm of CO2 emitted per tonne/km for carbon cost of sea freight, the annual carbon cost of sea freight of coking coal imports to the UK for the year was a proportionately small, but significant, 70,000 tonnes CO2.
This represents a saving for the use of domestic coking coal which would be the same as roughly 43,000 cars being removed from the road, given that the average mileage of a car in Britain is 7400 and the average car emits about 221.4gm/per mile.
Other greenhouse gases, in less significant quantities, are also emitted during sea freight, most notably nitrous oxide, methane, and fluorinated gases. In the long-term, nitrous oxide (N2O) has been found to have a more harmful global warming potential than CO2 as N2O can remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for more than 100 years.
Methane emissions during coal mining can also be significant. Methane can be 84 times more powerful than CO2 in its global warming potential, particularly in the short term, even though it is present in much smaller concentrations in the atmosphere.
The technical plans for the proposed mine in Cumbria are not publicly available, but one can be confident that plans for methane drainage and capture in advance of mining will be incorporated. This is essential for improving underground safety, as methane in concentrations underground between 5 and 17 percent is explosive, and its drainage and capture will minimise methane emissions, the methane captured can be used as a local power source for the mine.
In other countries, methane emissions are not necessarily captured by these means or by other mining methods. For example, methane venting from large open pits, may contribute significantly to global greenhouse gases.
Recent satellite observations have documented methane release from some overseas coal mines, and it has been reported that coals in Australia’s Bowen Basin, from which a proportion of the UK’s coking coal imports may have come, emit 50 percent more methane per tonne than the global average.
“Around 22% of global CO2 emissions”, as Carbon Brief puts it, “stem from the production of goods and materials that are, ultimately, consumed in a different country. However, traditional country inventories do not include emissions associated with imported goods”. But as a global UK seeking to address a global climate emergency, can we ignore the fact that producing our own coking coal rather than importing it would reduce harmful global GHG emissions?
The public inquiry of the Cumbria coal mine
I understand that the conclusion the planning authority reached in 2020 on the application was that:
“There are considerable benefits resulting from the development, not least the potential number of highly skilled jobs on offer and benefit to the UK economy. The project also contributes to the supply of coking coal for the UK steel industry, which is a critical raw material.
“Overall, the development and its wider impacts when considered as a whole would currently reduce global [greenhouse gas] emissions as a result of savings made from reduced transportation distances of coal to the steelworks and other emissions being neutral. This would be expected to remain the case until more environmentally friendly methods of steel manufacture and transportation are developed to be commercially viable.”
That seems to me to be a considered opinion. With the approach of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow and with Alok Sharma as its chair, they were under pressure from environmental groups and possibly hoping to avoid adverse publicity before the conference, the planning application was ‘called in’ by the government.
A new public inquiry chaired by planning inspector Stephen Normington took place over four weeks in the summer of 2021. Normington said he expected to make his recommendation in late December or early January 2022 to the secretary of state. The secretary of state, taking into account the inspector’s recommendation, will usually make the final decision.
The results of the public inquiry, the inspector’s recommendations, both of which may have preceded events in Ukraine, and the Minister’s decision is now expected in early July.
Following events in Ukraine and the disruption to European gas and energy supplies. The UK government is expected to review its position on securing the UK’s energy supplies. Whether this will extend to coking coal imports and impact on any decision on the proposed Cumbia mine remains to be seen.
Editor’s note: The plan of opening a coal mine in Cumbria to resource coking coal for steel production is a very controversial subject. Whether it is justified is truly a complex matter, and all sides of the argument need to be examined so that we understand the various factors of keeping the carbon footprint of steel production as low as possible. Discussion of whether to mine coal in Cumbria or to keep on shipping it from abroad needs to be maintained so it becomes clear why a decision has been made and how the consequences can be mitigated.
It is the decision of North West Bylines to publish all arguments for and against the Cumbria mine as long as these arguments are fact-based and well-reasoned. In this way we hope to provide an open platform for discussion of the subject from all perspectives.