Impacts Of Coal Mining On The Environment – A coal miner at the closed Kellingley Colliery in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, June 2012. Credit: Image Source / World Stock Photo

The fossil fuel industry is considered one of the largest sources of atmospheric greenhouse gases, mainly due to leakage from oil and natural gas production.

Impacts Of Coal Mining On The Environment

However, a new paper published in the journal Clean Production suggests that coal mining may actually be a larger contributor to greenhouse gas levels, with emissions expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

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This becomes even more apparent when considering the effects of old coal mines that continue to seep in long after they are abandoned. So far, there have been limited attempts to limit the release of shale gas from mines.

The authors of the new study say there are significant gaps in the available data, and their results are based on extrapolation from the only country with sufficient information.

However, their study is the latest in a series of papers showing that greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry are “grossly underestimated”.

Methane is produced by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as by human activities such as agriculture and fossil fuel production.

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While there is considerable uncertainty around the contribution of fossil fuels, which account for about a fifth of the total, previous work has suggested that oil and gas production are the largest contributors.

At the same time, coal, which emits 75% more CO2 than any other energy source, is neglected compared to landfill gas, which is a more potent greenhouse gas.

But coal can also be a source of sludge. The gas escapes from the coal seam and is often filtered through a ventilation system to ensure a safe environment for the miners.

Coal mine mud gas (CMM) is relatively low. But the International Energy Agency (IEA) attempted to quantify the global total in its latest World Energy Outlook (WEO) published in November 2019, settling on a figure of 40 million tonnes (Mt) annually from operational coal mines.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency says countries with deeper coal mines and less regulatory oversight have higher rates of these “indirect” greenhouse gas emissions, with China by far the largest contributor.

Considering its climate impact relative to CO2, media reports have compared these pollutants to the combined impact of the international aviation and maritime transport sectors. The IEA’s coal mine emissions forecast for 2018 is also about half of the 79Mt forecast by the oil and natural gas industry.

However, the new study estimates that the CMM in 2020 will be much higher, at about 135 billion cubic meters (about bcm), equivalent to about 92Mt of methane.

The authors also present their first-ever method for estimating global landfill gas emissions from old mining sites, suggesting a significant role for abandoned mine landfill gas (AMM). To prove this, coal seam gas emissions will rise to 114Mt in 2020.

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Using a base year of 2010, the authors say, greenhouse gas emissions were higher than recent widely cited studies and inventories.

They calculated the total for the year at 85Mt, 50% higher than the Community Emissions Data System (CEDS) and twice the value of the Global Atmospheric Survey (EDGAR).

The central calculation is straightforward – multiplying coal production or tonnes of coal by emissions factor, i.e. how much methane is emitted for each tonne of coal mined (cubic metres).

Because coal production data were fairly consistent across studies, Dr. Nazar Kholod Karbon of the Joint Institute for Global Change, who led the study, said briefly that their greenhouse gas estimates were largely a result of the emission factors they used.

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Some studies consider the gas content of mined coal to be a simple emission factor, but this does not mean that all of the coal gas escapes through nearby vents. That creates an “emission factor coefficient” that increases the amount of gas, Holod said.

There is little national data to calculate that number, Holod said, and the IEA does not provide details on the emission factors they use or how they derive them.

According to Holod, his team based its emission factor coefficients on more detailed data from coal mines in the United States and Ukraine. The result is a value of 1.7, which is within the range determined in previous work.

Multiplying this value by the coal gas estimate gave the team the emission factors they needed to analyze.

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However, many uncertainties exist due to issues such as how to measure mud gas, as well as the type of coal and the depth of the mine. All of these may vary between countries, while the study relied on extrapolation from US and Ukrainian data globally.

In the study, Holod and his team showed that given this uncertainty, CMM levels could be about a third higher or lower than expected values. In addition to better data collection at coal mines, they noted the potential for using satellite data observations to make independent emission estimates.

Dr. Mariel Saunois Carbone, who leads the Global Methane Budget and was not involved in the new study, said in a summary that due to many complex factors, calculating global coalbed methane estimates is extremely difficult. He also said that Holod’s figures were not far off from previous tests:

“If you take their uncertainty and put that uncertainty into other estimates, at some point there will be correlation.”

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Holod said their work “revealed many shortcomings in data collection and reporting,” but his team argued that greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry were not prioritized.

Specifically, he points to a recently widely circulated paper led by Dr. Benjamin Khmelnyt that suggests fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions may be 25-40% greater than previously thought. “Dr. Khmelnytsky and his colleagues used different methods but came to very similar conclusions,” he said.

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Hmiel told Carbon Brief that he agrees the new paper further supports his work, which does not distinguish between emissions from coal, oil and natural gas.

The Impact Of Coal Mining On The Environment. The Mining Location Was Abandoned Without Reclamation. Location At Sangatta, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. 14199600 Stock Photo At Vecteezy

However, he said coal is only “one piece of the puzzle” and cannot on its own explain the differences between shale gas reserves. “Oil and natural gas emissions may be higher than reported,” he said.

The main goal of Holod and his colleagues’ research is to look ahead and project the future contribution of coal mines to greenhouse gas emissions.

It is based on the “Middle Path” socio-economic development scenario SSP2, with different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) capturing different levels of climate action and thus coal production.

The study found that methane from coal mining continued to rise most of the way, although under the low-emissions scenario (RCP2.6, corresponding to temperatures below 2C) CMM exceeded 2020 (see table below).

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Although emissions from active mines are still relatively large, the analysis shows that the inclusion of AMM in sludge accounting is important.

CMM emissions are associated with coal production, but emissions from abandoned facilities are likely to continue to increase or at least remain stable even if urgent climate action is implemented.

Diagrams showing greenhouse gas emissions under different RCP scenarios. Although coal mine mud gas (CMM) and abandoned mine mud gas (AMM) are expected to increase in the coming decades, AMM will not be affected by aggressive mitigation actions. All lines are based on the “Medium Path” socio-economic development scenario (SSP2), with darker colors corresponding to more extreme climate action, including reductions in coal production. Source: Holod et al. (2020)

The estimates highlight the importance of preventing coal mine emissions. However, strategies for producing or flaring natural gas have not been widely implemented.

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The IEA estimates that around 45% of oil and gas shale gas emissions could be avoided, even given the potential for monetization from captured gas, which could be avoided at a negative cost.

“It’s really hard to do that with coal,” says Dave Jones Carbone of climate think tank Amber. Unlike oil and natural gas, coal-fired shale gas is not released in its pure form and can be expensive to capture, he said.

“When active mines are closed, there is a need to preserve information on the mine and to prepare the mine for AMM in the future… It is clear that mud gas in closed mines will be a problem for years to come.”

Kholod, N. et al. . (A/L) students of different disciplines in Kandy region of Sri Lanka

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