Wise coal miners know the need to go clean
BILL Moody is the first to admit coal suffers from a major image problem in a world grappling with the new realities of climate change. But the general manager of marketing and development at Premier Coal believes it is an image that is gradually being overcome by a new attitude towards the environment on the part of savvy coal miners.
‘‘ We’re well aware that our product is under the spotlight, and not in a positive way, but we think we can prove that we are serious about addressing the issues and ensuring the industry has a future,’’ he said.
Premier Coal, part of the Wesfarmers group, has an open cut mine at Collie, south of Perth, which produces around five million tonnes of coal per year. Most of its coal is fed via giant conveyor belts to the nearby Collie and Muja power stations, owned by the state government.
The company has worked hard to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the past 15 years or so, and is pinning hopes — and investing money — on new low-emissions technology it believes will save the industry.
‘‘ Practically speaking, coal-fired power stations can’t just be turned off,’’ he said. ‘‘ At Premier we’ve really tried to redouble our efforts to be responsible in the way we run our operations with a view to environmental performance, safety and community engagement. I think we’ve had a very long-term approach to improvements in our CO
2 emissions, which have gradually been coming down since 1992.’’
Emissions have been cut by 50 per cent per unit of production since 1994, which has resulted in major efficiency improvements, and Moody believes there is scope for still more reductions. ‘‘ That’s come about because of a major change in the way we ran our operations — switching from underground mining to more efficient open-cut, and we’ve also brought in more efficient equipment and planning processes. Last year we achieved a 6.8 per cent improvement on emissions from an already reduced base, and I think we can improve it even more.’’
Unlike coal from many mines in eastern Australia, Collie coal is methane-free and low in ash and sulphur. A recent international trial of Premier’s coal found it well-suited to gasification, one of the new low-emission technologies. Gasification uses oxygen at high pressure to break coal into components such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which are then substituted for coal as fuel.
‘‘ We’re very excited about gasification — we really think it is going to be the new generation in low emissions technology,’’ said Moody. ‘‘ We’re in a transition phase at the moment but we believe low-emission coal technology will be commercially proven within the next 5 to 10 years. It’s a crucial part of meeting the climate-change challenge.’’
Premier Coal helps fund the Coal21 Fund— an industry body set up to support research into the new clean-coal technologies — with more than $600,000 a year. ‘‘ I think we’ve got to support these things because I think the next few years are not going to be easy for the coal industry in general,’’ Moody said.
‘‘ It’s going to require huge adjustments, but I do think coal can emerge as a winner if we get behind these new developments.’’
Wesfarmers’ Resources division has recently been examining renewable energy sources for possible uses in its mining operations, including Premier. ‘‘ We’re particularly interested in solar for Premier Coal,’’ Moody said. ‘‘ It’s not quite economic yet, but we think we’re well situated here in WA to take advantage of it in terms of generation and contributing to the network.’’
Premier gained positive media coverage last year with its decision to use 10 per cent biofuels in its mining truck fleet — the first company in Australia to make such a commitment.
The initiative was destined to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1600 tonnes per annum, but came to an unfortunate end in November when the supplier, Australian Renewable Fuels, was forced to close its WA operations.
‘‘ That was very disappointing for us — it was purely due to the rising costs of the materials used to make the biofuels,’’ Moody said. He said Premier is still ‘‘ actively looking’’ for opportunities to use biofuels and would be happy to sign a new agreement if an appropriate supply could be found.
Other climate-friendly initiatives Premier has implemented include a hydrocarbon management program which reduced engineoil consumption by 23 per cent last year, and the substitution of LNG for diesel in mining equipment and heavy haulage trucks.
‘‘ We’ve has some problems with gaining acceptance of LNG fuel from engine suppliers because it starts to affect warranties and performance of engines, but we’re working through that,’’ Moody said. ‘‘ It’s important because it not only reduces emissions, but it could also have implications for other mining operations as well.’’
Western Australia has a much lower reliance on coal as an energy source than the rest of Australia — around 35 per cent for power generation, compared with 85 per cent on the east coast.
However, Moody believes coal will continue to have an important role in power generation at a state, national, and international level.
‘‘ It really comes down to encouraging new coal technologies to come on-stream — that’s going to be the biggest challenge into the future,’’ he said.
Coal: Foward-looking miners embrace environmental concerns and look to overcoming public perception