In the Defence of Coal

Aaron Foyer

Writing an article to discuss the positive merits of coal is likely to go over as well as writing about the positive impacts that Sam Bankman-Fried had on the world, but here we go.

Background: Last week, the UK government approved the Woodhouse Colliery project, the first new deep coal mine in the country in decades years. This comes nearly 8 years after miners left the country’s last standing deep coal mine, the Kellingley Colliery (pictured below).

Coal miners
Courtesy of Reuters

To say there was outrage at the mine’s approval is an understatement. The Guardian went as far as calling it a “climate crime against humanity”. Most organizations view the mine as at least standing in opposition to Britain’s climate goals.

Digging into the details of the mine unearths a very different story

Not thermal: The coal produced from the Woodhouse Colliery will be a very specific type known as metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.

  • Metallurgical coal ⁠— also known as coking coal ⁠⁠— has a higher energy content, less moisture, and more carbon than its dirty thermal brother. It typically melts instead of burns to release the carbon which is absorbed into iron during steelmaking.
  • Thermal coal is pretty much the opposite: lower energy content, more moisture, and definitely on fire to produce power.

The UK announced late last year it will be fully off coal-powered electricity in 2024 and this mine does not affect that milestone.

Moving off Russian coal: The coal from the mine, which has pledged to be “net-zero” by the mining company, will displace imported coal, most of it from Russia.

  • While the UK received less than 10 percent of its oil and gas imports from Russia in 2021, a full 27 percent of its coal imports were from the now hostile nation.

The UK will use much of the mined coal, but some of it will also be exported to Europe where it will be used to help other nations transition off Russian coking coal.

Main trade flows in the metallurgical coal market, 2020
million tonnes of coal

Global coal exports map
Courtesy of the International Energy Agency

The big picture: The outcries of the mine approval missed the bigger picture of this story: there is still significant demand for steel, which happens to be a challenging industry to decarbonize.

  • According to the IEA, even in its ambitious Net Zero by 2050 scenario, steel production grows 4 percent between now and 2030.

Going forward, steelmaker will increasingly employ technologies like electric-arc furnaces, carbon capture, and hydrogen to reduce the emissions intensity of steel, but metallurgical coal will remain the dominant method for a while.

Bottom line: There is a burning lack of honest conversations and quality journalism about energy and its consumption. A ‘climate crime against humanity versus’ frames a very different conversation than whether it’s better to produce steelmaking coal at home than importing it from a hostile nation.