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operationsA year ago a letter to the New Scientist made an extremely good point: that the coal mining process itself causes greenhouse gas emissions on a much larger scale than burning the coal in a power station does, a fact never taken into account by ministers and corporate heads when they spout their ‘clean coal’ rhetoric.

Impossible time scales

The letter was in response to an article by Fred Pearce debating the carbon capture and storage issue. The article was shocking in itself. It pointed out that government and power station operator targets for clean coal technology to be in effect bear to resemblance to industry estimates. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called The Future of Coal suggests that the first commercial CCS plants won’t be on stream until 2030 at the earliest.

The head of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents most US power generators said that that commercial deployment of CCS will require 25 years of research and development and cost about $20 billion. Shell, though enthusiastic about the technology, doesn’t foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050.

Governments, on the other hand, invent their own facts to suit their political agendas. The UK government recently approved coal fired power stations so long as they are ‘capture ready’, expecting the technology to be available from 2020. Germany recently approved its new coal power stations only stipulating that the plants must be compatible with any future carbon capture technology, i.e. ‘capture ready’, which as we’ve pointed out many times means a big space next to the power station, and nothing more.

Captured – but for how long?

If this technology is to reduce emissions and combat climate change, CO2 has to be stored safely for many thousands of years. Pearce points out that a leakage rate of 0.01% a year from a geological field used to store CO2 – a suggested industry standard – would see almost two-thirds of the gas released back into the atmosphere and oceans within 10,000 years – not very long on geological time scales.

The problem of storage of nuclear waste is starting to sound familiar, where burdening future generations with our hazardous waste is somehow morally acceptable.

A conservative estimate

We know that the Ed Miliiband line of 90% CO2 emissions reductions from burning coal is a lie, so what’s the real emissions reduction figure? Remember that carbon capture and storage itself consumes a huge amount of energy, anything from 10 to 40% of the energy produced by a fossil-fuel power station.

Pearce uses the the German Aerospace Center in Stuttgart estimate that at best CCS will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations by little more than two-thirds and compares that with life-cycle emissions for most renewable energy technologies that are 1 to 4% of those from burning coal.

The REALISTIC estimates

This is where the letter in response by Owen Jordan blows even the seemingly more honest criticisms of CCS out of the water, showing that even a two thirds reduction in emissions is far beyond CCS.

Owen Jordan states that methane, CO2 and carbon monoxide emissions start as soon as the overburden above the coal seams is stripped away, way before the coal reaches the power station. Conservative estimates suggest that these gases alone account for about twice the emissions of the burning of the coal mined.

Worse still, 98% of what is dug out in an opencast coal mine is not coal, but perhaps 25 per cent (at least 10 times the amount of coal extracted) will be shale and mudstone with a carbon content of up to 50 per cent. This cannot be burned, because of its high ash content, but it still oxidises if exposed to air.

Another conservative estimate is that this carbon source has the potential to emit three or four times as much CO2 as the mined coal.

And it doesn’t stop there – the energy used by diggers, trucks and trains to extract coal and transport it to the power station may take up to a quarter of the energy the coal produces at the power plant, and none of these emissions disappears when the CCS kit is bolted on. Scottish Coal say that 21,000 litres of diesel will be used per week by HGV’s when the Mainshill Open Cast Coal Site is up and running. They might as well burn the diesel and forget about the coal!

Jordan points out that carbon capture at the point of combustion is merely a dangerous distraction, as most of coal’s short-term greenhouse gas emissions are methane and most of coal’s carbon emissions are long-term, from disturbed strata and spoil dumps.

The conclusion?

Taking all of the above into account, capture of CO2 at power stations would therefore amount to a maximum of 5-10% of the emissions from the process of mining and burning coal.

Jordan had this to say about Kingsnorth: “it does not matter whether Kingsnorth’s new generation capacity is fitted with carbon capture, since most of the greenhouse gas emissions from coal (about 90%) occur at the mine or in the delivery system.”

Exactly the same can be said about ScottishPower’s plans to rebuild Longannet power station and retrofit it with CCS technology. It won’t make any significant reductions to carbon emissions and is merely a smokescreen allowing them to keep profiting from coal.

So there we have it. CCS has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 10%, by 2030 at the very earliest. Most climate scientists will tell you that we need to reduce our emissions by 90% by 2030 – so what is the UK government thinking?

Coal is a profitable business.


3 Responses to “Mining coal is more polluting than burning it – a final nail in the Carbon Capture coffin”

  1. 1 Sadie Habriel

    Very interesting. Have any proper studies been done on the emissions from mining? Those mentioned don’t even consider the energy used in fuel and transportation at the mine site!

  2. 2 Gavin @ hotel edinburgh

    I would never have thought about mining coal as being a bigger problem than burning it, I bet this is music to Margaret Thatchers ears, I can almost here her saying I told you so to the British public, I don’t think the government really know what they are doing, they have jumped on the band wagon to make themselves look good but are not putting in the amount of effort they should be to reach “their targets”.

  3. 3 anon

    Thatcher wasn’t against coal and she wasn’t against the environment; she was against working class power and she was prepared to irradiate the environment in the course of that war. Ian Bone said: “I know all about the ravages of opencast coal mining there because my dad was born just down the road (from Mainshill) in GLENBUCK and his dad and brothers all worked at CARMECOUP and KAMES pits. Ironically Glenbuck ceased to have any population after the mines closed and now the last vestiges of any buildings have been erased by the huge and ugly opencast workings. Give my regards to LORD HOME!” Not exactly music to Thatchers ears.

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