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Australia’s coal mine fugitive emissions – Oh boy?

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

Australia’s methane emissions from coal mines are twice as high as national estimates, with some mines leaking up to 10 times more methane than officially reported, research by an international climate think tank has found.

European-based researcher Ember was commissioned by the environmental group, Lock the Gate Alliance, to analyse available data on methane emissions from the Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System (AGEIS), the Clean Energy Regulator (CER), the Australian Chief Economist, Department of Natural Resources and Mines, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Global Energy Monitor.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and its global warming potential is more than 28 times more than that of carbon dioxide.

The report found that in 2019, Australian coal mine methane emissions made up 68 per cent of overall energy industry emissions, making it a bigger contributor than oil and gas fugitive emissions.

“What we found was that the methane leaking from Australian coal mines causes almost double the climate impact every year of all of Australia’s cars,” report author Dr Sabina Assan said.

“That’s a really massive climate impact before we even start to think about the carbon dioxide emissions released from burning coal.”

The Queensland coordinator for Lock the Gate, Ellie Smith, said the report had found that “there is massive under-reporting of methane emissions in Australia, so we’re not taking into account all of these emissions in our national accounting framework”.

The report also revealed new data from the IEA which estimated that Australian coal mines emitted 1.8 million tonnes of methane in 2021 — double what had been officially reported. That is equivalent to releasing over 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide year on year.

“The coal mine that stands out to everyone is Hail Creek open-pit mine, which has been found, I think, for four years in a row to be emitting almost 10 times as much as what is actually being reported by the mine,” Dr Assan said.

Hail Creek coal mine is owned by Australia’s largest coal producer, Glencore, and the company has previously told the ABC “it’s not credible” that a single mine could be responsible for such a large amount of methane emissions.

“Glencore has an established track record of emission reduction,” a Glencore spokesperson said. “Over the past decade, our coal business in Australia has abated 28 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent by flaring waste gas or turning it into electricity.”

Glencore said emissions from all of its operations were accounted for in its “robust” climate targets. “These targets include a 15 per cent reduction in total (including Scope 3) emissions by 2026 – a 50 per cent reduction in total emissions by 2035 and an ambition to be a net-zero total emissions company by 2050,” a spokesperson said.

The Ember report also mentions Anglo American as another major coal miner operating some of Australia’s “gassiest” mines.

“We are actively working on technology solutions to further reduce methane emissions in our underground metallurgical coal mines, as part of our commitment to operate carbon neutral mines by 2040,” an Anglo-American spokesperson said.

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second biggest contributor to global warming. Coal seams and methane gas are produced during the process of geological decomposition and compression of organic material deep underground, usually over tens of millions of years.

Methane gas is the same as the ‘natural gas’ targeted by gas companies and is released during the mining of coal. In open-pit coal mining, methane is released when the coal seams are broken up, and in underground coal mining, methane has to be ‘vented’ because at high concentrations it is an explosive risk.

Methane can continue to penetrate underground formations and escape for decades after coal mining ends. As mentioned, underground coal mines have to monitor methane because it is an explosive risk but measuring methane over vast open-pit coal mines is more difficult, so it has to be estimated using an emissions factor defined under the National Greenhouse & Energy Reporting Scheme.

“So for example, Queensland will have an average methane content in the coal, and an open-pit mine in Queensland will just use that figure to estimate its emissions, but no actual measurements are taking place,” Dr Assan said.

The other reason why the IEA data and Australian regulator coal methane records are so different is that it references new satellite information. “I think the solution really is to combine satellite measurements with actual direct measurements on the ground, that’s the only way we can really get a good picture of what’s going on,” Dr Assan said.

Professor Peter Rayner, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Melbourne, said the discrepancy in methane reporting was not necessarily deliberate. “I think all the operators, and probably the government, are getting away with doing things more simply than they can,” Professor Rayner said.

“The problem is not that people are trying to hide this, so much as that people aren’t doing the little bit of work that we need to actually work out what’s happening.”

Australia currently measures the global warming potential of methane over 100 years, but Ember researchers said that did not accurately measure its impact.

“The difference between methane and carbon dioxide is that methane has a much stronger heating effect in the short term compared to carbon dioxide, so around 82 times that of CO2 over 20 years,” Dr Assan said.

“It also has a shorter lifetime, which means that cutting the methane now will reduce global heating in the short term.”

At the Glasgow climate summit last year, Australia failed to join the US, EU, and more than 100 other countries in signing the Global Methane Pledge to “reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030”.

In another report, the IEA found that no new coal mines can be developed if the world is to reach net-zero by 2050, whilst a recent UN Report found that coal output needed to be reduced by 11 per cent each year to 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

“However, if Australia’s proposed [coal] production capacity is realised, the country will by 2030 be producing more than five times the maximum production amount to achieve a 1.5-degree compliant pathway in 2030,” the Ember report said.

There are 68 proposed coal projects across New South Wales and Queensland.

The Ember report found that if those projects were to be developed, Australia would become “the third-highest potential emitter of new CMM [coal mine methane] emissions after China and Russia”.

Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable said the mining industry was taking action on climate change and was committed to net zero emissions by 2050.

“The Australian coal industry has invested over $30 million to develop guidelines to assist the industry in meeting these requirements for both underground and surface mines,” she said.

“Other coal mining nations do not do this as thoroughly as Australia.”

Ember researchers said Australia’s coal industry needed a more robust methane emissions monitoring and reporting system, which incorporated new satellite monitoring technology.

“New satellites such as EnMAP, Carbon Mapper, CHIME, EMIT and MethaneSat will provide a more thorough picture of Australia’s CMM emissions and force improved transparency and methodology,” the report said.

According to the report, abatement measures for coal mine methane are available. It argues that vented air methane (VAM), which makes up most of the emissions, should be banned.

“The dominant means of reducing the climate impact of VAM is capturing the gas and either extracting or destroying the methane,” the report said.

“Combusting or passing methane through a flameless oxidiser destroys it and produces CO2 and water.”

The method still produces CO2, but not the more potent methane.

The CSIRO has also developed technologies to capture or limit methane emissions, including a machine that “uses a catalytic combustion gas turbine to create electricity from captured methane”.

“If applied to all underground mines, this technology has the potential to reduce Australia’s methane emissions by approximately 45 per cent,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Glencore’s Ravensworth underground coal mine in NSW, which was mothballed seven years ago, has quietly leaked methane equivalent to more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), an investigation by the Australian Conservation Foundation has revealed.

That means the abandoned Ravensworth coal pit, which has not produced a lump of coal since 2014, still emits as much climate pollution every year as 33,000 cars on the road.


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