Addressing Indonesia’s coal mine methane emissions

Indonesia joined the Global Methane Pledge at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year. This commitment was signed by 111 countries representing over 70% of the global economy and nearly half of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Indonesia’s approach towards the coal mining industry will be vital in meeting its commitments as part of this pledge. This will involve investments in methane monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), preventing mining of the most methane intensive coal seams, and utilizing or destroying methane at those mines which are not yet phased out. Demand for Indonesian coal will likely start falling before 2030, so the work on phasing out this highly polluting industry must reach a new level of urgency.

Indonesia’s coal mine methane emissions: almost double Jakarta’s CO2 emissions

Methane is estimated to be 86 times more damaging for the environment than carbon dioxide. During COP26, climate and energy think tank EMBER released a blog explaining why the world must act on coal mine methane. It shows that coal mine methane has a bigger short-term climate impact than all of Europe’s CO2 emissions.

Indonesia’s coal mines emit 1.18 million tonnes of methane, which is equivalent to 101 million tonnes of CO2 according to the International Energy Agency. This is almost double the CO2 emissions of Jakarta, meaning twice the damage to the global environment. Crucially, this methane estimate is almost certainly an underestimate, considering it is derived from desk research using countries’ and companies’ self-assessments. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates coal mine methane emissions could be one third higher than the IEA’s estimates.

Although there is continual coverage on methane leaks from oil and gas, coal mines leak as much methane as those fossil fuel industries. Indonesia has become a net oil importer over the past 20 years while the country is a moderate gas exporter. The major recent trend in the Indonesian energy sector is the exponential growth of coal production and exports.

Indonesian coal production more than doubled in the 10 years to 2019, reaching 616 million tonnes. Indonesian coal production now exceeds the level of the United States or Australia. Most of this coal production comes from surface mines rather than underground mines. However, as time passes and surface deposits are used up, the practice of underground mining is increasing (for example the mine site of PT Gerbang Daya Mandiri located in Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan started as surface mines but moved operations underground according to the Global Methane Initiative). This trend is in line with the projection of the Association of Indonesian Mining Professionals which predicts underground mining will begin to develop as surface mining production costs increase.

Indonesia's coal production increased 7.2% in 2021
Indonesia’s coal production increased 7.2% in 2021

The depth of coal mining strongly impacts methane emissions. As a rule of the thumb, the deeper the mine, the more methane is found. A tonne of coal produced from a methane rich mine emits over ten times more of this super-pollutant than coal from an average mine.

6 steps to address coal mine methane in Indonesia

The Global Methane Pledge asks countries for a minimum 30% cut to anthropogenic methane emissions by 2030. As President of the G20 multilateral platform connecting the world’s major developed and emerging economies, Indonesia can play a leading role on this vital international issue which is in focus among US President Joe Biden, European leaders and others.

Even if Indonesia closes coal mines, methane can continue to leak from “abandoned” mines for many years and this requires careful management. This problem can be exacerbated by a new article contained in the new mineral and coal mining law (UU Minerba) which raises concerns about the obligations of the post-mining recovery and reclamation process.

Properly closing mines both reduces ongoing methane emissions and ensures that mines do not pollute local groundwater and cause earth subsidence to populated mining areas. Globally, flooding is a widely used approach to abandoned mine methane management. However, the suitability of this method depends on local water systems.

There is a profitable business case to recover and use a large proportion of methane emissions. Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, can be captured and used to generate valuable heat and electricity. This could also help to provide new investment into coal-producing communities.

Curbing coal mine methane is one of the easiest wins in terms of immediate positive climate impact. Ember has outlined six steps that Indonesia and other countries can take to reduce coal mine methane emissions: 1) Understand the scale of the problem, 2) Speed up Indonesia’s clean electricity deployment to reduce coal generation, 3) Focus on closing the highest-emitting mines first, 4) Invest to reduce emissions at high-emitting mines, 5) Scrutinise permits for new coal mines for the risk of methane leaks, and 6) Manage methane from abandoned mines.

Methane leaks from coal mines are the climate crisis multiplier that few people are talking about. The International Energy Agency calculated coal mine methane has a bigger impact on climate change than shipping and aviation combined and Ember’s analysis shows the short-term climate impact is even bigger. Indonesia, as a coal superpower and leader of the G20, has a responsibility to demonstrate climate leadership on this clearly addressable source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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