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Podcast March 2, 2022

Tell Me How: Tackling Methane Emissions from Abandoned and Active Coal Mines

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In this episode, we discuss the magnitude of methane emissions from active and abandoned coal mines under different scenarios and illustrate policy options to mitigate these emissions.

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Roumeen Islam: This is the World Bank’s Infrastructure podcast. In today's episode, we discuss methane emissions from coal mines and why they're important.

It's emitted from landfills, oil and gas wells, coal mines, agricultural activities, livestock, and many other places.

What's interesting is that the concentration in the atmosphere was steady for hundreds of thousands of years. At around 1750, it began increasing very rapidly with industrialization and population growth. And there's of course, emission from natural sources, a changing climate affects these two.

Let's find out how this happens and how to mitigate these emissions.  

Good morning and welcome. I am Roumeen Islam, host of Tell Me How and our guest today is Meredydd Evans, senior staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where she's managing a program on international sustainable energy.

She's worked on energy efficiency and clean energy policies and projects in numerous countries. Welcome Meredydd.  

Meredydd Evans: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.  

Roumeen Islam: So, Meredydd, you've done a lot of research on greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines, and it's widely recognized that countries around the world need to move slowly out of coal into less polluting sources of energy to limit global warming.

Burning coal not only means putting more carbon dioxide into the air, but also more methane, quite a potent greenhouse gas. So, could you explain why methane from coal mines is of concern?  

Meredydd Evans: Sure. So,

And At the same time, many scholars argue that current estimates of methane emissions from fossil fuel are potentially underestimated.  

Roumeen Islam: Thank you. So are all mines the same or do methane emissions vary depending on the mine?

Meredydd Evans: Yeah, that's a great question. . And if you think about where oil and gas deposits are usually located, deep underground, the fossil fuel conversion happens after millennia of deep pressure and those same forces affect methane in coal.  

And then keeping that same concept in mind, underground mines tend to have more methane than surface mines. Underground mines are further divided into what's known as gassy or non-gassy mines based on their emissions, the explosion risk and the local geology.  

Roumeen Islam: Okay. So, there's a lot of variation but do you have data over the mines, like types of mine or geographical location?

Meredydd Evans: Yeah. So, geologists have compiled extensive data on methane contents of coal seams at different depths and for different types of coal. And that data has been collected in many places around the globe and it can shed light on the relationships between coal seam depth, like I mentioned before, methane content and the different types of coal.

And so, in other words,  

Roumeen Islam: But one thing I did want to bring out is that it's not just methane emissions from active coal mines that concern us, right? You've also researched closed or abandoned coal mines and found them to be substantial sources of methane emissions. And so, I wanted to ask you why do abandoned mines produce methane? And is this important?  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah, sure. Like you said, the core problem is from those active lines, particularly in the coming decades, but we know that there are potentially going to be significant emissions both today and in the future from abandoned mines.

Roumeen Islam: That is a very long time!  

Meredydd Evans: It is, it is. And when you add up all of those closed mines over time, you can get a fairly substantial amount of cumulative methane from those mines. The same time the majority of the emissions do occur in the first 10 years after you close a mine.

Roumeen Islam: All right. But I think that at some point I had understood that flooding may reduce… that some mines actually flood once you close them, and that when they flood, they don't release methane. Is that right?  

Meredydd Evans: Yes, that is true. So flooding is more common in very deep mines and in wetter climates, and if the mine floods that will effectively seal off the methane from continuing to come out.

Roumeen Islam: But can you explain why when methane is emitted, one can use the gas, so why isn't it used when initially you open a mine and this gas leaks out, why don’t people use the gas?  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah, that's a great question. A couple of reasons. So, one of the reasons is that  

If it is -and I'm talking active mines here-, if it's in degasification system that is more concentrated, but you still need to figure out how you may use it. Do you have a demand for heat or power that's right there for example?  

Roumeen Islam: Okay, so we're going to get to be using methane later, but I wanted to also go back to, so you had mentioned that flooding can reduce the problem of methane leakage, but is it a good solution? Could we just flood mines after we close them?

Meredydd Evans: Flooding doesn't universally occur and trying to flood a mine can be pretty difficult. I’d like to give the analogy of a bathtub. So, if you had a crack in that bathtub and you fill it up with water, the water is still going to come out of that bathtub. So, you can't really use it as a methane mitigation strategy, although certainly  

Roumeen Islam: And it takes 8 to 20 years. That's a very long time.  

Meredydd Evans: Yes, for the mines that do flood. We estimate that about half the mines flood, that's our best estimate.

Roumeen Islam: Okay, but it takes a very long time. And in that time, there's a lot of gas seeping out. So, could you give us an idea of how much methane actually comes from abandoned mines relative to active mines? I ask because abandoned mines are often just forgotten. If you've got an active mine and then you're thinking of closing it now with everyone aware of all the problems associated with methane leakage, they will probably be thinking of what to do about it, but abandoned mines are those that were closed years ago.

So, I'm just wondering how big a problem that is compared to other leakages.  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah. So in our study where we looked at future methane emissions under different scenarios, including a policy scenario that would significantly reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, we found that So specifically 31 million tons from active mines versus 23 million tons of methane from abandoned.  

Roumeen Islam: But that's pretty close it seems now.  

Meredydd Evans: Yes, of course. That's assuming that there are a lot of transitions in the energy sector away from coal. But yeah, it's a challenge because over the course of a century, those mines don't stop emitting.

So, the more mines you close, the more abandoned mine methane you ultimately get.  

Roumeen Islam: So, Meredydd you mentioned that assuming that some mines will be closed, active coal mines will emit less methane, and so the proportion of methane from abandoned mines will probably grow.

So let me ask you about the scenario analysis that you did, projecting methane emissions from working in abandoned coal mines and I know you looked at a mitigation pathway consistent with the Paris agreement and a pathway where there aren't as many additional or specific mitigation measures taken.

So do you want to speak a little bit about this and what you find?  

Meredydd Evans: Sure. So We looked, as you mentioned at several scenarios that project global coal production through 2100, and while that may seem distant as we discussed understanding the long-term impact of the mines that might be closed requires that kind of long-term perspective.

We in particular used an underlying scenario with moderate global GDP growth and low future greenhouse gas emissions. That scenario was roughly in line with two degrees of warming globally. The Paris goal, is 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming. And then importantly, we layered the changing methane emissions on top of those established scenarios, which effectively increased emissions.

In other words, our resulting scenarios say, “look, if we take this pathway for low emissions, and then we think about what increasingly deep mines and growing abandoned mines do, we actually have higher emissions than you may think.” And this additional methane needs to be mitigated ultimately, or other greenhouse gas emissions will need to be further reduced, if we were to limit global warming to two degrees.  

Roumeen Islam: So, I guess this is the important point because methane is so potent in its immediate or short-term global warming effects that the additional gas would be methane and it would be potent in the short term, that's what you're saying.  

Meredydd Evans: That is an important part of it. At the same time it is also important to think if we consider that the methane emissions from deep mines, maybe greater than we had previously thought, those are more emissions than we might've thought of in the past. Likewise, if we hadn't fully considered these abandoned mines, that's a lot more methane than we might've previously thought of and that methane has to be dealt with if we want to limit global warming.  

Roumeen Islam: And of course, if all countries don't start shutting down their coal plants -because you make the assumption that there will be coal plants shut down- then of course the problem is much higher because the problem that the scenario you gave us of abandoned mines methane rising relative to active coal mine methane would probably be reversed, right? If they don't shut the coal mines, then you'll just have more active mines methane.  

Meredydd Evans: Sure. Yes, we assume that there will still be active coal mines and methane from those active coal mines, but

Roumeen Islam: So why don't we think a little bit about the types of policies that might be recommended to limit methane emissions from abandoned mines. I'm assuming that the policies that one would adopt to deal with methane from abandoned mines have a lot in common with the policies that you think of when you're just about to close a mine. And given that this is an important policy action, this idea of closing mines progressively over the next few years to meet our climate agenda, let's think about what might be some policies to deal with this methane? How would you think about them?  

Meredydd Evans: We studied global policies to promote the capture and use of abandoned mine methane or AMM and we found five key actions that can really help. And there are many parallels as well with policies for active mines.  

So, the five areas are enacting clear procedures for obtaining AMM ownership rights.

Roumeen Islam: So when someone closes the mine who owns it?  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah, it varies in many countries, and in some countries it's simply not clear. And that's a problem, because if it's not clear, if you can't establish clear ownership rights, it makes projects very difficult. In some countries it's clear that all underground resources are owned by the government.

But then to license that gas, the process may or may not be clear. In some places, for example, some parts of the United States, if the land is in private hands, the sub-surface minerals would also be in private hands unless they're transferred. So it varies.

Roumeen Islam: I see. And then after it's closed, if it's a publicly owned mine, then it's up to the government to either do something, because it owns it, or to give the rights to a private owner, to a private business.  

Meredydd Evans: Yes. They typically would license it off.  

Roumeen Islam: All right. And so, what are some other policies that you would need?

Meredydd Evans: So the transfer of methane rights, the ability to do that is very important.

So, let's say that you own, if you're a private land owner and you own those methane rights, or even if you've obtained the license, your ability to sell it to someone else, maybe a power producer who would like to buy the gas to be able to utilize it. That is quite important actually.  

Roumeen Islam: And that has to be legislated as well.  

Meredydd Evans: Either legislative or in the regulatory context. So that it's clear you can actually own that gas and you can transfer it to somebody else.  

Roumeen Islam: And do you think the lack of this sort of regulation and legislation hinders countries from doing something with it?  

Meredydd Evans: It absolutely does. It's one of the major barriers. I think it's also really interesting to know that if you don't have some of these foundational pieces, like clear ownership rights, or also an open and cost reflective energy market for particularly electricity and natural gas, if you don't have those foundational things, it simply costs more to do projects to mitigate methane.

Roumeen Islam: That's interesting. Could you speak a bit more about the electricity markets?  

Meredydd Evans: Sure. So, if you have an electricity market where the government has paid for a lot of the capital assets, either historically or currently, or you don't allow them, you don't require that people fully pay for the cost of electricity, then it's hard to do a project that is cost competitive compared to the alternatives.

Roumeen Islam: Now there were some other do you have other ideas about how to deal with this methane or what might be needed?  

Meredydd Evans: Absolutely. So I mentioned, if I go back to that list of five we have the ownership rights as the first, the transfer of methane rights is the second. Then having abandoned mine methane as a renewable energy source in legislation or regulations can be very helpful as an incentive.

Roumeen Islam: So it would be a renewable energy source.

Meredydd Evans: So in several countries, there are there's renewable energy legislation that provides incentives for renewable energy purchasers and in many cases for example, in Poland, in Germany, in some states in the United States, methane from abandoned mines that's used to produce power and sometimes from operating mines can access those kinds of credits.

So that's an important incentive, financial incentive for projects.  

Roumeen Islam: So, Meredydd just to clarify methane is not a renewable energy resource. However, it can benefit from the special incentives given to renewable energy providers and it may make sense to so, why is that? Could you explain again?  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah. Because methane from these abandoned mines, from active mines, it's going to come out anyway, it's a by-product.  

So, policymakers in several places around the world have decided that it makes sense to incentivize it. And they've used the same structure that they've used for incentivizing renewable energy in the power sector. If we don't incentivize it and it's not quite cost-effective enough, then that methane will be admitted and it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Roumeen Islam: Alright. So of course, no one’s going to be giving special incentives if they're going to go for the sole purpose of getting the gas out. But if it's a by-product that you want to get rid of, that's when you get the special incentive.  

Meredydd Evans: So, under international greenhouse gas accounting rules we account for methane from abandoned and operating mines differently, particularly regarding mitigation than we would count gas that is a little bit deeper in the earth. Say coal bed methane or natural gas itself. And because it's going to come out anyway, once you've disturbed those calls strata the idea is that it makes sense to try to incentivize projects to mitigate the emissions.  

Roumeen Islam: All right. Shall we go to a couple of the others?

Meredydd Evans: Another one is royalties. If those royalties are very high, it's a big disincentive to a project.

And operators may prefer to simply let the gas vent, which can be both dangerous at existing mines as well as hugely polluting. So, the way in which those royalties are set, can have a huge advantage or disadvantage for projects. And that's also linked to these other financial stimuli. So, in some countries there are also -and this is the final one- reduced taxes or targeted financial and fiscal incentives to stimulate projects on abandoned mines.

That might be, for example, waving a climate levy in the UK, for example, or other types of financial incentives through the tax policy and looking at it cumulatively, it's important to see, “Hey, is this enough to actually incentivize projects so that you can mitigate this methane and this important source of greenhouse gas emissions”?

Roumeen Islam: So what I'm understanding from you is that it's really not always or generally a profitable business, even if you've got the ownership rights, clearly delineated, to go in and do a methane project. And again, some sort of financial incentives are often needed.  

Meredydd Evans: It really depends on the specifics. It can be. And certainly, if you don't have clear ownership rights, that scares away investors. And so, you need more incentives. And so it's like on a balance how much incentive you need depend on those underlying conditions, market conditions, such as the ability to obtain ownership rights, how your other energy sectors are operating and whether they’re cost reflective.

And in some cases you may have a mine that is very far from markets for electricity or the heat, and that can make it more difficult. In some countries depending on the geology, and this is true in the United States and also in Australia, the methane that comes from these mines is of high enough quality that you can actually clean it and put it into natural gas pipelines. So that can make projects more cost effective. And in much of Europe and Asia typically you have to burn it. It's not as high content of methane so you produce power heat or use it in other ways.  

Roumeen Islam: That's very interesting. Thank you. Now what about policies for methane mitigation in operating mines, right?

Because that might be a bit different or not.  

Meredydd Evans: There are a lot of similarities. So, the issue of ownership, rights is very similar. One additional nuance regarding ownership…

Roumeen Islam: But Meredydd you have rights if you're operating the coal mine, right?

Meredydd Evans: Ha, that's the tricky part. So, not always. You may not actually own the rights to the methane.

Let's say that there's a coal mine and underneath it, there's a natural gas deposit. There may be a company that's producing that natural gas and it wants the right to be able to extract it. And that may actually interfere with the coal operation. So, it's quite tricky because the coal operator typically needs to be able to control the methane for safety.

And some countries, the legislation is what you call gas estate, where they're primarily focused on the gas production versus a coal estate where you say, okay, if you have the rights to the coal, you've got the rights to everything. That second setup typically makes it easier to both operate the mine safely and to be able to mitigate the methane.

Roumeen Islam: That's good to know now, are there other factors that also matter?

Meredydd Evans: Many of the others, as I mentioned are similar. There are fewer renewable energy credits for methane from active mines, but sometimes it exists and again, tax policy can also be important.

Typically, countries don't consider that methane to be an additional fossil fuel source, but it really depends.  

Roumeen Islam: Now you've already spoken about different types of mines in different countries in your answers. But I was wondering if you could give me a few examples of the policies that you mentioned in different countries.

I think you already mentioned a couple, but could we expand on these a bit?

Meredydd Evans: Sure. So, an example of procedures to obtain clear ownership rights for abandoned mine methane in the UK, for example, they have a program to auction off the licenses, the rights to the methane from those abandoned mines and companies that win those auctions if they don't actually proceed with projects quickly, they'll lose those rights and they have to pay some degree of royalty in the meantime. Germany also has similar policies. And as I mentioned briefly

Roumeen Islam: And these policies are they working?  

Meredydd Evans: So, And we know that the ownership matters because in countries that don't have clear ownership rights there typically are very few -if any- projects.  

Roumeen Islam: Let's talk a little bit about a somewhat different aspect. But then we also heard about how you could establish projects around the methane while you're closing the mine and after you've closed it. So, could you talk a little bit about the job creation aspects? Is it possible to make some of these opportunities worthwhile and if you're looking at job creation aspect?  

Meredydd Evans: Yeah. So,

The utilization of that methane often requires workers who can do construction work, including drilling bowl, water holes, building power plants, or connections to natural gas networks. And then on an ongoing basis, there's a need for staff to operate say the power plants that utilize that methane and monitor conditions.

But it's also important to note, I think that this does not substitute for a robust and just transition strategy for coal mining communities. Since those abandoned min, methane jobs are likely only going to be a small share of the mining jobs that are lost.  

Roumeen Islam: So, Meredydd how do you think we should proceed from here in terms of new areas where we might want to do more research, deepen our research, get more data. What are your views on this?

Meredydd Evans: I do think it's important to conduct more research in this area. Our study on future emissions based on coal mine depths and the geology of abandoned mines was one of the first in this area.

And other studies can further refine this with more data. For example, clearer data on just how much methane there may be in as you remove the rock around coal seams, how much methane might there be in those seams? That's one data point. And how many mines are flooding. We could get further refinement on that as well.

We know the kinds of policies that can help. We've talked about that here, but there's a significant need for scaling up, which likely requires clear analysis on the benefits and costs in specific countries.

And then that can feed into country-specific methane strategies that those countries can use for planning and tracking and ultimately mitigating methane.  

Roumeen Islam: Thank you. That was really very helpful. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we end?  

Meredydd Evans: I really thank you for the opportunity and your excellent questions.

Roumeen Islam: Thank you very much. It was lovely talking to you.  

Well, listeners, what did we learn today? Firstly, Recent data and research indicate that these emissions are much greater than we previously thought with implications for global warming.

Secondly, The most important being the allocation of clear ownership rights to the methane and the rights to transfer ownership. Thirdly

In fact, . Thank you and bye for now.


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