Silesian coal not what it seams | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 05.03.2019
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Silesian coal not what it seams

Poland is one of Europe’s biggest coal producers and is reluctant to follow the global drive to cut CO2 emissions. But energy authorities say a new plan to extract methane from coal could kill two birds with one stone.

The Polish Oil and Gas Company (PGNiG) and the Polish Mining Group (PGG) recently signed an agreement to extract methane gas from hard coal seams at the site of Ruda Ruch Bielszowice mine in Silesia, southern Poland.

Poland is a major European coal producer and has dragged its feet over agreeing to UN CO2 emission reduction targets. It is also caught in the middle of the row within the EU over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russian supplies and German markets.

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In recent years it has looked to diversify its source of gas, while modernizing its coal sector. Poland appears to be increasing LNG imports from Qatar, Norway and the US in an attempt to gradually reduce its dependence on coal and Russia. This project the Polish government believes could help achieve both aims.

The Upper Silesian Coal Basin may contain as much as 170 billion cubic meters (6 trillion cubic feet) of methane, according to estimates from the Polish Geological Institute. 

The management boards of PGNiG and PGG at the signing ceremony

The management boards of PGNiG and PGG at the signing ceremony

Up and running by 2026

The new venture will drill borehole systems and undertake geophysical surveys and laboratory tests and seek to stimulate the flow of methane into the well. PGNiG will then conduct production tests to determine the potential for methane capture from the coal seams, a spokesman for the company said. 

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PGG plans to start mining the walls in this part of the deposit after 2026.

"Methane from coal seams is extracted all around the world," Piotr Wozniak, PGNiG CEO, said. "The exploitation of the resource in Silesia will significantly increase the capabilities for domestic extraction of this fuel and, at the same time, reduce the emissions of methane, which is an aggressive greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere."

For the PGNiG chief executive the project is a "unique opportunity" to develop effective methods of methane exploration and extraction on "an industrial scale."

Poland and coal

Most of the electricity generation in Poland is covered by coal. Poland's ruling party was elected in 2015 promising to support the domestic coal industry, and introduced policies that made it harder to invest in renewable energy sources. However, it changed course in 2018 due to the need to meet the EU's environmental objectives for renewable energy.

Bielszowice coal mine is one of the three components of the combined Ruda mine in Ruda Slaska. The company has so far drilled 5 boreholes and the results of production tests were positive, the company spokesman said. Between June and November 2017, nearly 900,000 cubic meters of high-methane natural gas was produced from local coal seams.

Huge excavator transporting coal to heaps at the Pniowek coal mine in Pawlowice, Poland.

The KWK Pniowek coal mine, owned by mining company JSW, is Poland's largest coal mine. It employs 3,900 miners who extract 13.5 thousand tons of high-grade coal each day, destined for coking at steel mills across Europe

Reducing risk and CO2 emissions

Methane released during mining operations poses a danger to underground crews and its removal reduces the pace of mining operations as well as increases costs, the spokesman said. 

Methane is highly combustible — its release can have serious implications for the safety of mine operations.  Thirteen miners died and 10 were injured after a fire caused by burning methane erupted in a black coal mine in the east of the Czech Republic in December.

It is also a potent greenhouse gas, the spokesman says, which is why the project could enhance improve Poland's carbon footprint. "Tackling methane emissions is an important step in meeting the challenge of climate change and in ensuring the safety of mining operations. Methane can also act as a valuable source of energy, enabling countries to diversify their energy supplies," he added. 

Most of the methane released during coal mining is released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the greenhouse effect. PGNiG and PGG hope that methane capture will help mitigate these difficulties.

"PGG is interested in increasing the safety of mining operations in the face of the growing methane hazard," Tomasz Rogala, PGG CEO, said.

Methane's commercial viability

Coal Bed Methane (CBM) is recovered from un-mined coal seams. The coal seams can be mined in the future but this is largely dependent upon geological factors, such as coal depth and quality.

Secondly, there is Coal Mine Methane (CMM) which is recovered during mining activities as the coal is in the process of being extracted and thus emitting significant quantities of the gas.

And then there is Abandoned Mine Methane (AMM) which exists in mines that have been abandoned following the completion of mining operations.

Natural gas such as methane is a fast growing energy source and is gaining market share. The CBM market is estimated to reach $17.3 billion (€15.2 billion) by 2020.

Natural gas will be the highest demanded energy source in the near future. Depleting conventional natural gas sources has shifted the market focus towards unconventional gas sources like CBM, shale gas and tight gas. These factors are anticipated to boost demand for CBM in the next few years.

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