Study examines coal mine methane output in Russia

GHG emissions from methane 21 times more potent than CO2 over 100-year period



The Russian Federation, the world’s third-largest emitter of coal mine methane after the United States and China, can convert much of this growing safety and environmental liability into a lucrative and climate-friendly asset, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

The 70-page information paper, titled “Coal Mine Methane in Russia: Capturing the safety and environmental benefits,” is one in a series of reports designed to highlight specific opportunities for cost-effective reductions of methane emissions around the world from oil and natural gas facilities, coal mines and landfills, with the aim of improving knowledge about effective policy approaches.

The IEA is a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that acts as a policy advisor to its 28 member countries and works with many other countries, especially China, India and Russia. It was established under the umbrella of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1974 in the wake of the oil crisis, but the agency’s mandate has broadened over the years to focus on sound policy regarding energy security, economic development and environmental protection, primarily mitigating climate change.

Coal mine methane: a global safety and environmental hazard

Unlike coal bed methane, which is intentionally developed as a natural gas resource, coal mine methane is gas incidentally released immediately prior to, during, or subsequent to coal mining activities, and thus, affects climate change.

Coal mine methane is also a serious safety hazard in coal mining operations around the world. Thousands of miners lose their lives each year in underground explosions, principally due to inadequate methane control.

In Russia, coal mine methane is a major safety problem. In 2007, two catastrophic coal mine explosions killed 150 miners in Russia. The RosTechNadzor, Russia’s state safety regulator, cited excessive levels of coal mine methane resulting from violations of ventilation requirements as the key cause of the explosions.

As for the environment, Russia accounts for an estimated 6 percent of global coal mine methane emissions, releasing nearly 2 billion cubic meters of gas into the atmosphere each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (China coal mines are responsible for 33 percent and the United States 13 percent, per the EPA.)

According to the IEA, in 2008 Russia was the world’s fifth largest producer of hard coal, producing about “1/11th of the level of China and about one quarter of the level in the United States.”

Current official projections suggest that Russian coal production will grow from 323 million metric tons in 2008 to as much as 400 million metric tons in 2020, though the current global economic crisis increases uncertainty in this projection. However, the outlook in Russia is for an increasing share of the country’s coal production to come from deeper underground mines with higher and higher levels of methane released. (Methane emissions from working underground mines make up about 90 percent of emissions from coal mining related activities per EPA.)

As a result, the projected increase in coal mine methane emissions could be even greater than the proportional increase in underground coal production. Russian experts project coal mine methane emissions will grow as much as 4 percent per year, if no action is taken to enhance coal mine methane recovery and use in Russia. This trend also will further exacerbate coal mine safety problems in Russia, according to the IEA paper, which was published Dec. 18.

Methane emissions 21 times more potent than CO2

In its report, the IEA noted that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

In 2000, methane accounted for 16 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions globally, and coal mining contributed 8 percent of all methane emissions that year, according to the EPA.

Currently in Russia, only limited amounts of coal mine methane are recovered and used. In 2006, for example, 1.9 billion cubic meters of methane was released from Russian mines. By contrast, only 317 million cubic meters were recovered by degasification or methane drainage systems two years later.

The volume of methane that is actually used at the mine site or for local electricity and heat generation is even smaller, totaling only 40 million cubic meters per year. Though degasification can help increase the output from coal faces and thus enhance the economics of coal production, only 25 percent of active mines in Russia have installed degasification systems. This is especially a concern given the relatively high methane content of Russian coal compared to coal mined elsewhere in the world, the IEA said.

Only a few coal mines in Russia have installed leading edge technologies for coal mine methane recovery and use. A major project at the Kirova mine in the Kuznetskiy basin is, however, being developed to increase the rate of methane drained and utilized.

Safety improvements drive methane recovery efforts

In Russia, the key driver for methane recovery is the safety of underground mining, the IEA said. Improved safety would, in turn, lead to improved labor and mine productivity.

Methane-related accidents at coal mines in Russia are principally due to noncompliance with safety regulations. The high level of methane release at Russian mines increases the risk of accidents. The key to ensuring mine safety in Russia is the effective adherence to mine safety regulations, the agency concluded.

Secondary drivers for coal mine methane recovery are an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing additional clean fuel into the local fuel mix.

The IEA said the high methane content of coal in Russian mines should make them attractive hosts for projects focused on methane recovery and use.

However, improvement in mine productivity from safe methane recovery would be an even stronger economic driver, the agency said.

Flaring would help as an interim measure

The Russian government could adopt flaring as an interim measure until appropriate technologies become more broadly available and effectively used.

The IEA said the flaring of suitably recovered coal mine methane as opposed to venting the methane to the atmosphere would yield a significant benefit.

“Although the energy content of the flared methane would not be exploited, its global warming potential would be substantially reduced by combusting it and converting it to carbon dioxide and water. Further, international experience has shown that this type of staged approach (flaring followed later by utilization) allows for much-improved project economics,” the agency said.

Better national and international coordination needed

Russia clearly has a need for better coordinated efforts at the national level to address the issue of coal mine methane recovery and use, the IEA said. It noted that a joint effort by research and development institutes, coal company managers and engineers responsible for mining safety in methane-rich mines could focus attention on coal mine methane and establish better dialogue and communication across government and industry. An effective and proactive national coordinating body should have the stature and ability to bring together representatives of relevant organizations: federal authorities, research institutes and companies.

“Such a body could focus attention on the key barriers and challenges to enhancing coal mine methane recovery and use in Russia and promote better international dialogue with key international organizations and companies. It could be an effective channel for two-way information flows involving all major and small coal companies in Russia to raise awareness of the challenges faced by all stakeholders and to enhance information exchange on policies and international best practices. This could help promote a radical increase in the recovery and use of coal mine methane in Russia to enhance mine safety, raise mine competitiveness and productivity, and lead to a more sustainable economic development of Russia’s coal sector and its energy sector as a whole,” the agency said.

The IEA said it also would encourage Russia to take advantage of already existing international efforts focused on coal mine methane use such as the Methane to Markets Partnership, which can provide much support to improve information exchange and technology transfer and the promotion of international best practices to enhance the use of coal mine methane in Russia.

The Methane to Markets Partnership is a United Nations-backed public-private partnership of 29 national governments and more than 900 private organizations working to advance the methane capture and use projects in the coal, agriculture, landfill, and oil and gas sectors in partner countries.

Editor’s note

The world’s coal mines send nearly as much methane into the air each day as the proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline would ship south for Lower 48 consumers—roughly 3.4 billion cubic feet a day as compared to the 4-4.5 bcf the Alaska gasline would carry.

Links of interest

Coal Mine Methane in Russia

Energy sector methane recovery and use

Methane to Markets Partnership

Minimizing the coal industry’s carbon footprint

Contact Rose Ragsdale at