Thursday, 14 January 2021

Greta Thunberg's criticism of the Cumbrian coal project highlights her naivety

Environmentalist Greta Thunberg has criticised the government's decision not to intervene in plans for the UK's first deep coal mine in 30 years. The West Cumbria Mining development has led to protests by climate campaigners, including of course Extinction Rebellion, who have argued that the new mine, which will reportedly emit 8m tonnes of carbon annually, contradicts the UK’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 (posting of 12 October 2020).

Extinction Rebellion Cumbria staged a "climate change crime scene" outside the council in October (Source BBC)
Ms. Thunberg tweeted to her 4.4 million followers last week "The UK government has decided not to intervene with the plans of opening a brand new English coal mine. This really shows the true meaning of so called “net zero 2050”. These vague, insufficient targets long into the future basically mean nothing today".

Her tweet has prompted hundreds of comments, the majority applauding her stand but not all, thankfully. Many of them appreciate why this mine is being developed but their comments are often met with blatant abuse from those totally ignorant of the difference between thermal and metallurgical coal.  

West Cumbria Mining plans to mine under the seabed to extract around 2.7m tonnes of metallurgical coal annually, which is essentially, and solely, for use within industry and not for power stations. Steel and chemical factories in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and Port Talbot are expected to utilise the mine's output, with the company arguing that the coal will replace imports and will not increase emissions because it will not be shipped over from the US, Canada, Russia and Australia. 

What Greta Thunberg, and other extremists with limited technological knowledge, do not realise is that achieving a carbon-free society will require vast quantities of raw materials to build the electric vehicles and wind turbines of the future, and the most essential material will be steel, the ubiquitous alloy used in construction. A single wind-turbine, for instance, requires well over 300 tonnes of steel, and to make steel we need metallurgical coal from which we produce coke for the iron blast furnaces.

Although environmental considerations are driving the introduction of new technologies, blast furnace related technologies for the production of pig-iron are still by far the most common methods for ironmaking and are predicted to be the single largest process until 2050. The blast furnace is reliant on a plentiful supply of coke, the hot air blast oxidising the coke to carbon monoxide, which reduces the iron ore, hematite, to pig-iron, a very brittle alloy, containing around 4% carbon. Liquid pig-iron is then refined in oxygen converters, which reduce the carbon content to a value dependent on the use for the steel, 'mild steel', which is used for general engineering applications, having a carbon content of round 0.2%.

It is unlikely that technologies that do not use liquid pig iron will dominate in the coming decades, and ore, coal and limestone will remain the main raw materials used to make pig-iron. Existing technologies that produce liquid pig-iron outside the blast furnace are considerably inferior to blast furnace smelting with respect to productivity and integral total fuel consumption, which includes the fuel costs incurred to produce coke, agglomerated ore-bearing materials, hot blast air, and oxygen. The blast furnace process is also the leading technology in terms of the scale of production and has the lowest production costs. 

So it may seem paradoxical, but mining of coal is essential in the quest for a zero-carbon society. Metallurgical coal is required to produce steel, but it is rarely appreciated that fossil fuels, whether from coal or gas, will also be needed for some time yet, in order to help build the electric vehicles and wind turbines of the future. There just aren't enough renewable sources of energy at present to provide the energy to mine and extract the necessary raw materials and to manufacture the multitude of renewable energy devices and electric vehicles which are proposed.

We have talked a lot on the blog about educating mining sceptics, but the unfortunate thing is that those that we really need to educate are often those with the highest profile, who attract hordes of unthinking followers. 



  1. Dear Barry,
    thank you very much for this wonderful contribution seeking clarification with a progressive mindset and delivering the facts. I am wondering if this will be visible on the same level as the other contributions in the debate, may it be short sighted anti- or pro positions. And for sure this debate, going far beyond just this one operation but really deep into the big questions of the future, needs many such clear fact based contributions lik yours.
    Even though I entirely agree with your explanations for the need of many mining operations as an important if not essential part of the energy transition and towards a future with a net zero CO2 emission I would also like to express that I am in support of Fridays for Future and brave youngsters fighting for a better tomorrow. It is for sure our task to get the facts right and your contribution is a great example of this task of ours. Yet, I believe that without the young kids having been protesting we would not have seen such a turn in policies which are now (even though too slowly) leading to the changes in society and industry and supporting the energy transition and circular economy, even though this important awareness has suffered due to Covid having taken over the news, despite 2020 having been another record breaking year with respect to clear signs of man-made global warming.
    I will even like to provocotively say that I think there is the right for the extinction rebellion voices to be heard. One part of their story is that all of us should think of reducing our consumptions and with that carbon and raw materials footprint. Why do so many people still believe in the economic growth myth, this indeed needs to stop, because this also scientfically does not make sense. It also does not make sense to replace every fossil fuel powered car with an electrically driven one, including fuel cell (btw. the next big deal after Lithium Ion Batteries). I will stop here now, because then this quickly would lead this debate into a way too political one. As I said I just wanted to provoke.
    Finally, I hope I did not turn my support for your clear factful statements into an anti position, which would not have been my intention. I will certainly do my best to spread your message, which as you know very well goes along with the narratives of our activities in Freiberg.
    Best wishes,

    1. Many thanks Martin for your thoughtful and honest views on a sensitive topic. I agree with you that people such as Greta Thunberg have highlighted the existential problems facing the planet, but sometimes they do themselves a disservice by not grasping the facts, thus leaving themselves open to criticism, and sometimes ridicule. The Cumbrian coal mining development is a prime example of this.

  2. Is there a shortage of metallurgical coal?

    1. I don't know, but presumably the demand is there or they would't be mining it.

  3. With so few active mining operations, the UK must be importing all it's met. coal at the moment.

    1. Which is why the Cumbrian mine is so important Sam.

  4. Hi Barry, Well argued as usual, with the point that reaching the required readership is elusive. I have noted before that several university colleagues seem unaware of the essential use of metallurgical coal. I like the paradox you note at the end.
    James A. Finch, Gerald G Hatch Professor Emeritus in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, McGill University, Canada

    1. Thanks Jim for highlighting the paradox. It is this need for fossil fuels to provide a carbon-free society that many do not understand

  5. Many mineral engineers are not familiar with coal-- so let me say a bit about coal.Coal is not considered  a mineral because it is organic  while minerals are inorganic and have definite physical and chemical properties.
    Powerful people have their own way and metallurgists have their own way of thinking about coal.
    Coal is a beautiful word-carbon/oxygen/anthracite/lignite--that shows --properties vary from lignite to anthracite as maturity of formation takes place.
    For a mineral engineer like me--since the techniques used to beneficiate ores and coal are same-so we should  give equal importance to coal and mineral.
    We in India noted this as early as 1977 and started a B. Tech program in Mineral Engineering at Indian School of Mines, teaching both on minerals and coal
    KING COAL will be there as long as we need energy for power generation/metal extraction/cement industry and so on.
    We have to innovate to handle emissions--if scientists and technologists are showing a way in developing a vaccine for corona in such a short time--why can't we find a solution to the emissions. I ask that why not look at breaking C of O; please do not immediately say that it is expensive, etc. etc.--that is where innovation comes--make something technically feasible and then make that economically viable.
    For me. Minerals and coal would continue to play very significant role in any development activity--may it be health/agriculture/infrastructure and so on.!


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