India’s push for more coal to increase its methane emissions

  • The government of India has been targeting a substantial increase in coal mining and for that, it has taken several measures over the past year. But an increase in coal mining without the mitigation measures could result in an increase in India’s methane emissions as well.
  • A latest study by Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit research organisation, states that 52 proposed coal mines (of at least one million tonne capacity each) could increase its methane emissions by 45 million tonnes.
  • The study’ author suggested that to avoid these methane emissions India should focus on mitigation technologies, recovery and utilisation practices, or not mining. They note that India, like all coal-producing countries, should plan to manage methane leaks from existing operations and abandoned mines.

India’s push for ramping up coal production would lead to an increase in the country’s methane emissions, the second biggest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, a latest study has revealed. With this increase in methane emissions, climate change and its impacts in India could be further aggravated.

A new study by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), a nonprofit research organisation, coal mines currently under development across the world would leak 1,135 Mt (Million Tonnes) of annual carbon dioxide equivalent on a 20-year horizon. The countries with the highest amount of methane emissions from proposed coal mines are China (572 Mt), Australia (233 Mt), Russia (125 Mt), India (45 Mt), South Africa (34 Mt), the U.S. (28 Mt), and Canada (17 Mt).

The report said that the proposed coal mines in China, United States, Turkey, Poland, and Uzbekistan could emit 40–50 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane, making them among the gassiest proposed coal mines in the world.

According to the study, methane is the second biggest contributor to global warming after CO2, with a shorter atmospheric lifetime, but much stronger potency and warming potential. During mining, fractured coal seams and surrounding strata emit methane into the atmosphere. For India, methane emissions from 52 proposed mines are expected to be 45 Mt of CO2 equivalent.

Ryan Driskell Tate, a research analyst at Global Energy Monitor and author of the study, said: “Coal mine methane has dodged scrutiny for years even though there’s clear evidence it poses a significant climate impact. If new coal mines proceed as planned, without mitigation measures in place, then a major source of greenhouse gas will go unrestrained.”

On India’s proposed coal mines, Tate said India has 52 proposed mines that are each at least one million tonne capacity or larger while adding that the total proposed capacity for those 52 new mines is 376 Mt per annum.

“If those operations go into production as planned, their methane leaks alone will total 45 Mt of CO2 equivalent annually, on a 20-year horizon, and that’s not including emissions from the actual combustion of coal,” he told Mongabay-India.

He, however, clarified there are smaller mines that have been proposed that are not included in that tally. Thus, if those mines are also included in the tally the amount of methane emission calculated could be higher.

He explained that, in 2019, India’s energy-related CO2 emissions reached 2.62 billion tonnes and noted: “methane leaks from new mines alone would represent a 1.7 percent increase in energy-related CO2 emissions.” “But if you consider the climate impact of those methane emissions and the actual combustion of coal, the new mines could increase current energy-related CO2 emissions by 23 percent, unless emissions are offset elsewhere.”

For this study, the GEM surveyed 432 proposed coal mines globally and modelled methane emission estimates at the individual mine level. It said that unless mitigated, methane emissions from these proposed mines would amount to 13.5 million tonnes (Mt) of methane annually, a 30 percent increase over current methane emissions.

Tate emphasised that “all coal-producing countries need to improve the monitoring of mine-by-mine methane levels and should make that information public.”

In 2018, the Community Emissions Data System estimated global coal mine methane emissions to be 55 Mt.

In 2020, India has taken a series of measures to encourage coal mining. Photo by Stephen Codrington/Wikimedia Commons.
In 2020, India has taken a series of measures to encourage coal mining. Photo by Stephen Codrington/Wikimedia Commons.

But Chandra Bhushan, who is president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iForest), a think-tank working on environmental and sustainability issues, explained that methane emissions from coal mines is not as large as methane plumes from oil and gas wells.

“In the oil and gas industry, methane emissions can go to several hundred million tonnes. It is a fundamental problem in that sector. Even satellite-based analysis has shown that methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are huge. The methane emissions from the coal sector, if compared to the oil and gas sector, is not such a huge issue,” Bhushan told Mongabay-India.

In fact, he said, there are several attempts by countries to tap the coal-bed methane. “The methane from coal mines is lean methane (diluted) but there are attempts being made to capture rich methane (concentrated) from coal-bed directly through pipes. In India, it is being pursued at several places,” Bhushan said.

Read more: Environmental degradation in India’s oldest coal mining belt leaves locals gasping for relief

India needs to focus on methane mitigation from mines

The report does not spell good news for India which has been targeting one billion tonnes of coal production to cut down imports. In 2020, the Indian government came out with a slew of reforms including commercial coal auctions and eased rules to encourage private coal miners.

However, the increase in coal mining is expected to usher a transition that is not going to be fair as it would threaten forests and forest dwellers. The problems faced by mining-affected communities including pollution, health-related issues and rehabilitation already highlight the harmful impact of unsustainable coal mining practices.

Experts note that the increase in coal mining is not in conformity with India’s climate goals. The increase in coal mining would lead to an increase in methane emissions as well as carbon dioxide emissions, once the mined coal is used for energy purposes.

In 2015, just before the Paris Climate Agreement, India submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In those goals, India promised a reduction in the emissions intensity of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 33 to 35 percent; achieving about 40 percent installed power capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources; energy efficiency; and creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover.

The GEM study said despite the climate impact of gassy mines and coal mine methane more generally, most of these proposed operations have received little public scrutiny or mitigation planning.

Tate explained that coal mines leak methane during operation and long after a mine has been abandoned and said: “The only way to reduce those leaks are through mitigation technologies, recovery and utilisation practices, or not mining. India, like all coal-producing countries, needs to plan for how to manage methane leaks from existing operations and abandoned mines.”

“With mines that are still proposed, and not yet in operation, methane mitigation needs to be on the agenda from the very beginning,” he told Mongabay-India.

The study, meanwhile, further said that globally, the state-owned enterprises remain the major sources of proposed coal mine methane, including China Coal, Shandong Energy, Coal India, and Shaanxi Coal and Chemical Industry Group.

Read more: India’s largest coalfield to expand, green cover under threat


Banner Image: India is aiming to increase its domestic coal production to a billion tonnes per year. Photo by CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons.

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