Dark Materials - a global glimpse

Down to Earth No.85-86, August 2010

The following is extracted from a special report by Roger Moody of Nostromo Research, for Mines and Communities, on social, environmental and economic aspects of global coal dependency - with specific reference to Indonesia and India. Read the full report.

Thermal, or steam, coal accounts for around 70% of global output of the fossil fuel. It is burned to create steam that propels turbines. The majority of the world's electrical power currently relies on the burning of thermal coal.

The remainder of mined coal is used primarily for manufacturing steel and cement. This Metallurgical, or Coking, variety is usually of a higher quality than that used to generate electricity; and its market price reflects the fact.

Since 2008, Indonesia has been the world's leading exporter of thermal coal: its estimated share of that market in 2007 was just over a quarter of the total (25.5%).1

The global coal trade as a whole is virtually certain to expand in the short term. So will domestic mining in some countries. The longer-term (2012 - 2020) prospects of an expansion in output hinge on a number of, as yet, undetermined factors.

In May this year, the US Energy Information Administration said that, "assuming no [global] energy policy changes" ( a critical qualification), coal will continue to fuel the largest share of global electricity output in 2035, generating more than 30 trillion kilowatt hours. China and India, between them, would account for 85% of this increase, with the rest of the world consuming little more than it did in 2010.2

However, if a global political consensus were finally reached to slash global greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels (at the very minimum) the days of the dependence on the black stuff will be numbered. The substitution of thermal coal for liquid natural gas and so-called "renewables" (solar, wind, wave power) is already happening, albeit far too sluggishly and with little immediate impact. Ministers for each of Earth's three greediest carbon-eating states - China, the US and India - are on record as intending to reduce reliance on coal. However this won't happen yet.

On present evidence it will take at least another 10 years before the coal production starts to decline. This is a "decade of grace" that the planet simply hasn't got.

Main types of coal - and consequences of mining them

Coal's rank - or quality - is calculated according to the degree to which the original plant material has been transformed over time into carbon.

The older the coal, usually the higher its carbon content. Generally speaking, the higher that content, the cleaner the coal; and the more heat created per unit of the raw material burned. Anthracite - with the highest carbon content - gives out more heat than any other type. Bituminous Coal (so-called because of its bitumen content) is generally dirtier than anthracite, while Sub-Bituminous coals are dirtier still. At the bottom of this sprawling heap lies Lignite - the dirtiest fuel of all (see Box).

Critical to calculating the potential damage inherent in various coal bodies is knowing the proportion of sulphur within them. This may differ widely - even within specific, apparently discrete, deposits. If they are not safeguarded from contact with oxygen and water, high sulphur stock piles and related wastes will produce sulphuric acid (SO2). This then leaches out toxic heavy metals within the ore, or surrounding soils, which may be highly poisonous to marine life. If these poisons bio-accumulate and bio-magnify through the food chain, they will become harmful to human life itself.

Sulphur fumes, emitted from power stations, unless adequately captured at the plants themselves, are also a major contributor (together with ammonium, nitrogen and carbon) to "Acid Rain" that has already wreaked havoc on forest growth.

Contrary to common perception, the higher-quality coking coal required for steel manufacture may also contain significant quantities of sulphur (2% or more). Although traditionally burned in European steel furnaces, this type of coal is now less sought after by the region's customers. Nonetheless, steel mills in China are reportedly now entering the market for this high-sulphur variety and mixing it with consignments previously destined for power stations.3



From the most dirty to the somewhat less

LIGNITE (also known as Brown Coal) is inherently the most contaminated, and potentially polluting, of mined coals. Its carbon content ranges between 20% and 40%; its moisture content can amount to 70% by volume; and its ash content may rise to as high as 20%. Lignite customarily contains more sulphur than any other coal types.

This fuel is also susceptible to spontaneous combustion, creating dangers from transporting and storing it (MM May 2010). Strip-mined by the biggest excavators, shovels, draglines and crushers on earth (some with the capacity to scoop out 12,000 tons of the material every hour)(WC 5/2010) lignite is a cocktail of potential toxicity, including mercury, other heavy metals, radioactive isotypes and particulate matter.

Although located in many countries, brown coal was historically the staple fuel for the massive 20th century industrialisation of Europe - notably by Germany, Poland, Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia and Turkey.

However, civil society movements in many of these countries have compelled the imposition of tougher air, water, and soil quality standards - thus significantly curbing Europe's lignite extraction.

Nonetheless, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan host significant lignite deposits, as well as mining some of them. So does Australia's LaTrobe Valley and a number of mid-west and southern US states US (MM 5/2010).

SUB-BITUMINOUS coals (sometimes called "black lignite") are of a higher grade than lignite, containing less moisture (between 25%-30%), less sulphur, and generally (though not always) used for thermal power generation. Their heating potential is higher than that of lignite - ranging from 8,300 to 11,500 BTU/lb (19,306 - to- 26,749 kJ/kg). But, like lignite, these coals are susceptible to spontaneous combustion, if not packed densely enough to exclude air flows.

In Indonesia, sub-bituminous coals are produced by KPC at its Pinang and Bengalon mines, both for domestic and foreign consumption (WC 5/2009) and are in demand mainly because of their low (0.2%) sulphur content (WC, ibid).

PT Adaro also extracts sub-bituminous coals from its Titupan mines, for their medium heat and "ultra low" sulphur, ash, and NOx (nitrogen oxides) content. Again, these are used within Indonesia itself and also despatched to overseas customers (Adaro at a Glance: www.adaro.com/overview/30).

Similarly, Banpu's Torong mine supplies lower-heat, sub-bituminous, products, allegedly with a very low sulphur content, destined for an onshore power station and to foreign markets (WC 5/2009).

BITUMINOUS COAL is soft, dense, and black, with a moisture content less than 20%, used for generating electricity, making into coke, and in space heating (essentially, the blowing of warm air into buildings).

The heat potential of this product ranges between 6.8 and 9 kW/kG, and it has a lower sulphur and ash content than the sub-bituminous variety. However, coking coal, supplied by Indonesia to Japan, does have a significant ash content of 8% (Asia Energy, 4/4/2010).

Such coals are mined in Indonesia at PT Arutmin's Satui and Senakin mines in South Kalimantan (information from PT Arutmin - see also Thiess, next section). KPC earmarks this higher grade of coal solely for export, from its Pinang and Bengalon mines (WC 5/2009).

Banpu's Bontang and Trubaindo mines in Indonesia also deliver mid-to-high heat bituminous steam coals exclusively for export.

ANTHRACITE (aka Hard Coal) is black, lustrous and hard. Low in sulphur, high in carbon (between 86-98%), with a moisture content generally lower than 15%, it possesses the highest heat value of the four main coal varieties (9kW/kg) of coal. Employed mainly for power generation, anthracite's share of the world market is minor compared with that of the other three main varieties of coal.

Note: MM: Mining Magazine (monthly) WC: World Coal magazine (monthly)





Indonesia - leading the export pack

The six principal thermal coal exporting countries are Indonesia, Australia, Russia, South Africa, Colombia and - until last year - China.4

Significantly, Indonesia doesn't feature among the top ten coal consuming states. Its domestic consumption of coal in 2009 ( at 30. 5 mte* oil equivalent) was barely more than that of the United Kingdom (with an output of just 195 mte).5

The disproportion between using this indigenous fuel to serve domestic power and industry and providing it to other states, is even more marked in the case of Colombia. The Latin American state consumed only 3.1 mte last year, while the country's mined output was 15 times as great (nearly 47 mte).6

Thus, Indonesia and Colombia are surrendering far more of the domestic value of their coals to foreign exploitation, than any other major coal-endowed economy.

In stark contrast, Japan and South Korea (which together mined less than 2 mte of coal in 2009) currently feature as the 4th and 10th most coal consumptive states in the world.7

Moreover, by the end of last year, the amount of Indonesia's coal-in-the-ground stood at a mere 4,328 mt. The country's chief competitors in grabbing coal export contracts host sufficient reserves to sustain sales for years to come. But Indonesia currently ranks just 19th, in terms of its own reserves and resources - a mere 0.5% of the global total.8

It should be borne in mind that figures for proven coal reserves and inferred resources may be revised upwards following expanded exploration,

At present, however - and to put it bluntly - Indonesia is disposing of its "family silver" at a rate, and to a degree, unrivalled by any administration on our planet.


Behind the figures - some stark realities

Statistics often appear flat and become tedious to digest. Nonetheless, they can tell important tales. Knowing how much heat (BTU) is contained within the raw material shows how much of it will have to be extracted to deliver a given branded "product". Calculating moisture content enables even a "non-expert" to roughly estimate the amount of treatment required turn a wet coal into a drier one. Similarly, if the ore is high in sulphur other potentially hazardous materials, we will have at least a thumb-nail indication of the likely environmental and health impacts - all along the mining to end-use chain - of failing to separate out these elements and reduce their toxicity.

Even when these heavily-contaminated coals are "washed" - and not to ignore the toll in water usage, required for this to be effective - there remains the challenge of disposing permanently of the acidic wastes.

A recent (May 2010) investigation by this author and Indonesian colleagues of Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC)'s vast opencast operations in East Kalimantan produced evidence that, in only one or two cases, had dumped washings been covered with impermeable sheets, protected from heavy rainfall, and separated from contact with adjacent water bodies.

Indeed, the team identified several instances of direct leaching of toxic spoils into lagoons within the concession areas; and of run-off being piped into a pond which, though purportedly treated with lime to reduce its high acidity, was then siphoned directly into a river used by villagers.

Once we make ourselves aware of the method of extraction and the coal "strip ratio" (how much overburden, in the form of rock, soil and vegetation, needs to be removed in order to access the ore body) we can conjecture what will be a mine's likely impacts on human habitation; the capacity of local people to continue growing crops, to rear livestock, breed fish, gathering other foodstuffs, or to sustain a variety of other livelihoods.

All mining imposes what's dubbed a "footprint" - one encompassing not only the mine's own infrastructure, but much else besides: transport routes, sea or river ports, facilities for workers, units for sewage disposal, and generating power needed for the extraction operation itself. Habitually these installations may come to affect the availability and use of endemic natural resources over a far greater area than has been projected in the initial mine construction plan. In fact they may sequester, and profoundly damage, up to thirty times more territory than the mine itself.

Of the two main methods used to dig out coal, underground extraction customarily requires far less land than does a strip, or open-cast, mine. However, due to the ever-present risk of a release of potentially highly-explosive methane, workers' lives are continually placed in danger.

Surface mining (employed in Indonesia and the commonest practice throughout the world with the marked exception of China) may prove less hazardous to workforces (although injuries still occur from blasting and using of unsafe equipment.). Nonetheless, methane will also be released, or pumped into the air from deposits exposed to the open air, thus increasing the contribution of this very potent greenhouse gas to global warming.

The vast overground workings of Kaltim Prima Coal, belonging to its Sangatta and Bengalon concessions in East Kalimantan, each stretch for more than a kilometre across, plunging - from crest to bottom - almost the same distance. They are creating a moonscape that, if all the plans of KPC's mines and men are fulfilled, will cut a 30 mile wide swath, advancing 100 km north of Sangatta town.9 According to one of Indonesia's leading environmental and human rights activists, Chalid Muhammad, the Kaltim Prima mines are sacrificing 12,000 hectares each year - and this amount is bound to increase unless Bumi Resources and Tata of India (the leading investors in KPC) are not halted in their current expansion.

One thing is certain: when it comes to rehabilitating a closed-down underground mine, much of the waste can be deposited into the empty shafts. But this cannot happen when the coal has been scooped from hills and valleys and already degraded surface rivers and streams. What is left behind is a series of horizontal plateaus (known as "benches"), vertically descending at slopes too steep to ensure long-term stability, while being bereft of sufficient nutrients for adequate plant regeneration.

Even were this not the case, the extraction process will already have robbed the soil of most of its essential biota, and precluded sustainable water regeneration, in some cases over many years.

Sangatta town - at the heart of KPC's mini-empire - has already seen its local economy distorted - possible terminally - by its over-dependence on the plunder of its non-renewable resources. At least one community's farmland has been rendered useless as a result of flooding, allegedly triggered by KPC's denudation of upstream forestry; And the company's main tailings (waste disposal) dam, to which coal washings are assigned, is reportedly in a parlous state.10



  1. International Energy Agency, Coal Information, 2008.
  2. The US Energy Information Administration's International Energy Outlook, 2010
  3. Commodities Now, 28/6/2010
  4. World Coal magazine 5/2009
  5. BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010
  6. BP 2010 ibid
  7. BP 2010 ibid
  8. BP 2010 ibid
  9. Information from Jatam, Samarinda, 14/5/2010.
  10. Our team was unable to visit the main KPC tailings' deposition area. However, a company employee, recently responsible for overseeing the dam's operational standards, told us that a number of basic precautionary measures were not being taken.

*Note: In this particular report, "mte" = million metric tonnes, while "mt" = million short tons.