EDITORIAL: Coal and wasteful practices
THE problem of coal wastage isn’t new. It is, in fact, a multi-faceted issue that has exercised minds over many decades.
This newspaper today reports the comments of some experts who criticise the coal industry for discarding too much potentially valuable coal in its spoils. It is thought that up to 25per cent of the total volume of coal dug up in the valley is discarded, representing a significant loss of a resource that has cost a lot – in financial, social and environmental terms – to unearth.
That’s one element of wastage.
People with ties to the coal industry going back many decades might remember the arguments that used to rage over the allegedly wasteful extraction practices employed in underground pits on the coalfields around Cessnock.
Mine owners were charged by critics with sterilising millions of tonnes of superb quality coal because their focus was on speed of extraction and profits, rather than the maximum exploitation of the mineral resource.
At that level, the debate is practically ideological.
Perhaps similarly ideological is the charge, by the Minerals Council industry lobby group, that government delays in approving new mines and pit expansions are ‘‘threatening about 8600 jobs’’ in the Hunter Region alone.
Given the coal market is already known to be grossly oversupplied (that’s why prices are depressed) it seems unlikely that all these new projects could be viable. Even if all were approved, it seems most unlikely they could co-exist with the mines already open.
Mining industry leaders have already observed that, for supply and demand to realign, some mines will have to close.
Assuming that’s so, it seems at least some of the new jobs created by newly approved mines must be offset by the loss of jobs in the mines that can be expected to shut. It is also apparent that the mines most at risk of closure in an oversupplied market are those with the highest per-tonne cost of production – usually those most labour intensive.
Some might regard that as wasteful.
As for coal left in spoils, this most likely occurs because the mining companies aren’t fully convinced that investing in the technology needed to extract the last dregs of coal will generate an adequate return to justify the expense.
If it was clear that the exercise would be economic, the mines would almost certainly spend the money.
Anecdotally, examples exist of miners investing in technology to extract more coal from spoils, only to find the results in the field haven’t lived up to expectations.
Viability of recovery operations depends on the price of coal and the cost, efficiency and reliability of the techniques on offer.
That’s a matter that mine owners are in a position to assess for themselves.