EURACOAL opinion on the proposed methane regulation

The European Parliament’s work on the proposed Methane Regulation temporarily stalled following revelations that a US-funded green NGO prepared the internal documents used by one of the responsible rapporteurs during negotiations. With the file now progressing again, albeit without one of the original co-rapporteurs, EURACOAL offers its opinion on the regulation.

The proposed Methane Regulation aims to reduce emissions of a greenhouse gas (GHG).[1] EURACOAL notes that GHG emissions from the coal industry have been in decline for decades and will continue to decline under agreed coal phase-out plans. On current trends, coal methane emissions will fall by 62% from 2020 to 2030 – far more than the 30% promised by the EU in the Global Methane Pledge.[2]  By insisting that methane drained from coal mines is used or flared, methane emissions would fall even faster. Unfortunately, the regulation as drafted would ban flaring, despite this being a safe and effective way to reduce methane emissions by a factor of 29.8 to 82.5 – depending on the assumed global warming potential (GWP) of methane.[3]

The Polish underground coal mining industry in particular is targeted by the proposed Methane Regulation. There is only one other underground mine in Europe affected – a lignite mine in Slovenia. Given that more than 70% of Polish electricity generation is from coal, it is important that coal can continue to be mined throughout the 2030s and 2040s. Without amendment, the proposed regulation threatens the future of many coal mines, including the coking coal mines that supply a critical raw material for steelmaking in the EU.

If Polish coal mines are forced to close before their agreed phase-out dates, more coal would have to be imported from outside the EU to meet demand from power stations. Here, the proposed regulation is lenient as importers would only be obliged to meet minimum reporting requirements on upstream methane emissions. Emissions would increase because, unlike EU producers, non-EU coal producers would have no obligation to capture any methane. Exporters to the EU would be treated more favourably than indigenous producers: an EU State aid for our competitors in Australia, South Africa and the US! At a time of deep crisis in the European energy industry, it is strategically wrong to force any EU coal mine to close prematurely. That would not be a just transition.

The Commission proposal includes setting an upper limit for methane emissions in ventilation shafts of half a tonne of methane for every thousand tonnes of coal mined (0.5 tCH4/kt). Methane is vented through mine ventilation shafts to keep underground workers safe from the risks of explosion. The coal industry already implements and has plans to further develop methane capture technologies to decrease its carbon footprint, but the proposed limit is impossible to meet! The Council of the European Union recognises that it must be set higher, suggesting 5 tCH4/kt. Industry needs 8 tCH4/kt per operator which would still mean big investments to reduce emissions from the gassiest mines. Members of the European Parliament have yet to vote on a compromise, but several members have suggested values closer to the Council’s position.

Methane in ventilation air is problematic. No technologies are yet economic or even safe to use as those offered assume a methane concentration of 1.0‑1.2% which is above the 0.75% required under Polish safety regulation to avoid any risk of deadly explosion. In practice, operators aim at even lower concentrations of methane in ventilation shafts – between 0.06% and 0.45%. Regulation should thus focus on encouraging the economic use of drained methane rather than putting workers at risk with untested technologies for ventilation air methane.

Instead of the strict regulation and penalties proposed by the European Commission, EURACOAL called for incentives like those in Germany to encourage the productive use of drained methane. We also need to see R&D support to develop and prove technologies for ventilation air methane so that they can be approved for safe use. These would have wide application at coal mines outside the EU which together account for 96% of global coal production. EU policymakers need to keep that figure in mind as they construct a methane regulation to address the triple challenge of reducing global methane emissions while keeping EU coal miners safe and in work.

[1] Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector and amending Regulation (EU) 2019/942, COM(2021) 805 final, Brussels, 15 December 2021.

[2] Impact Assessment Report Accompanying the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector and amending Regulation (EU) 2019/942, Commission Staff Working Document SWD(2021) 459, p.59, Brussels, 15 December 2021.

[3], p. 1017.