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Interview: Lake Vermont mine extension- A ticking methane bomb for Australia's climate goals

In a world facing the urgency of combating climate change, it is essential to examine the environmental impacts of large-scale

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Interview: Lake Vermont Mine's climate impact could be twice as high

In a world facing the urgency of combating climate change, it is essential to examine the environmental impacts of large-scale industrial projects.

One such project currently under scrutiny is the proposed extension of the Lake Vermont mine in Queensland, operated by Jellinbah Group amid this contentious debate, UK-based think-tank Ember has conducted a comprehensive analysis that has raised significant concerns about potential methane emissions from the mine.

These findings have far-reaching implications for Australia's climate goals and the effectiveness of the Safeguard Mechanism.

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Experts highlight concerns about methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine extension, emphasizing the need for an accurate estimate and regulatory action. Credit: Ember-climate.org

The report's author Annika Reynolds, a climate policy adviser specializing in coal mine methane, and Chris Wright, a climate strategy adviser in the same field, were interviewed by Ground Report.

In an interview, Chris Wright, and Annika Reynolds, discussed the potential methane emissions from the proposed Lake Vermont mine extension and the implications for the Safeguard Mechanism and climate targets.

The experts highlighted significant concerns raised by Ember's analysis regarding potential methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine. They stressed that accurate estimation of methane contamination is crucial to assessing the mine's environmental impact and ensuring appropriate regulatory action.

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Map highlighting the location of Lake Vermont mine.

Ember's independent calculations and models indicate that the methane intensity resulting from the proposed underground operations at the Lake Vermont mine could range from 7 to 9 tons of methane per thousand tons of coal. This corresponds to potential substantial lifetime methane emissions of 27 to 34 million tonnes of CO2-e emissions (100-year GWP) or 78 to 100 million tonnes of CO2-e emissions when considering the 20-year climate impact of methane (20-year GWP).

The experts emphasized that projected methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine extension pose significant challenges for the Australian and Queensland governments in achieving their climate goals.

These emissions would hamper goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 43% and 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Furthermore, the implications extend to the effectiveness of the Safeguard Mechanism, since exceeding the defined emission limits would undermine the integrity of the scheme.

Excerpts from the interview

Q: How did you calculate the potential methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine extension, and what data sources did you rely on for your analysis?

A: Calculating potential methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine extension involved considering open pit and underground operations separately. For open pit operations, Ember relied on the Lake Vermont Extension project's requirement to report its methane emissions to the Clean Energy Regulator. Under the regulations, the project would be required to use the updated state emissions factor of 0.031 tons of CO2-e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per ton of coal to estimate methane pollution. Ember used this updated emissions factor to calculate likely methane emissions from open pit operations.

Regarding to underground operations, Ember used a modelling approach to estimate methane intensity per tonne of coal mined. This involved developing a model based on industry knowledge and experience, which takes into account factors such as geology, mining methods and ventilation systems. However, the specific data sources used in the analysis were not explicitly mentioned in the response.

Q: Can you explain the reasons behind the mine operator's significant underestimation of methane emissions in their Environmental Impact Statement (EIA)? What outdated and inaccurate methods were used in your estimation?

A: The significant underestimation of methane emissions by the mine operator in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIA) can be attributed to several factors. The Lake Vermont Extension project contemplates both underground and surface coal mine operations, with underground operations planned for the first 23 years and surface mining scheduled to begin in the 20th year. However, the proponent did not provide a clear explanation of how they estimated the likely methane emissions from the proposed underground operations. This lack of information makes it difficult for us to assess the accuracy of your emissions estimates for underground mining.

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Lake Vermount is a major open pit coal mine located in central Queensland, Australia. Photo credit: David Wipf

The Environmental Impact Statement was prepared in advance of the 2023 updates to Australia's greenhouse gas emission measurement laws. As a result, the mine operator relied on the outdated state emissions factor of 0.023 tonnes CO2-e per tonne of coal to estimate methane emissions from its open pit operations. This outdated factor may not reflect the most accurate and up-to-date understanding of methane emissions associated with coal mining. When considering both the inadequate estimation of underground methane emissions and the use of outdated emission factors for open pit operations, it becomes clear that the mine operator's Environmental Impact Statement does not provide a complete and accurate assessment of the potential methane emissions from the project.

Q: How do the estimated methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine compare to other similar coal mines in the Bowen Basin?

A: Estimated methane emissions from the Lake Vermont mine, specifically from its underground operations, are significantly lower compared to other similar coal mines in the Bowen Basin. The mine operator has estimated a methane intensity of 3.3 tons of methane for every thousand tons of coal. When we consider all operating underground coal mines in the Bowen Basin, the average methane intensity is estimated to be 10 tons of methane per thousand tons of coal, not excluding outliers. It is important to note that this average includes two statistical outliers: the North Goonyella Coal Mine and the Cook Coal Mine, both of which report higher methane emissions.

If we exclude these outliers, the average methane intensity from underground coal operations in the Bowen Basin drops to 7 tons of methane for every thousand tons of coal.

If the Lake Vermont mine extension is approved with its underestimated emissions, there are specific risks and implications for both the Safeguard Mechanism and the climate targets of the Australian and Queensland governments.

Q: What are the specific risks and implications for the Safeguard Mechanism, as well as the climate targets of the Australian and Queensland governments, if the Lake Vermont mine extension is approved with its underestimated emissions?

A: First, methane contamination from the Lake Vermont mine will pose challenges for governments to meet their climate goals. The Australian government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, while the Queensland government targets a 30% reduction. Underestimated emissions from the Lake Vermont mine extension would contribute to increased methane pollution, making it difficult to meet these goals within specified time frames. It could hinder progress towards the transition to a low carbon economy and climate change mitigation.

In addition, approval of the Lake Vermont expansion would undermine the federal government's backstop mechanism. The existing Lake Vermont mine is currently regulated under this mechanism, which sets a baseline for Scope 1 emissions at 394,117 tons of CO2-e per year. However, according to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIA), the extension would lead to higher Scope 1 emissions, resulting in an average annual emission of 552,778 tons of CO2-e. This exceeds the current baseline by 1.4 times.

Ember's analysis also suggests that the proponent's estimate of methane intensity from the Lake Vermont extension is an underestimate. This increases the likelihood that the project will exceed its current baseline and contribute to even higher emissions than anticipated. It creates a situation where the ceiling of the safeguard mechanism, intended to limit emissions, could be exceeded by 2030.

Q: How can regulators address the inadequate estimation and management of methane emissions in the coal mining sector?

A: The Lake Vermont Meadowbrook proposal highlights a larger problem within the coal mining industry. It reveals a pattern in which proposed mines and expansions consistently underestimate their methane emissions, taking advantage of lenient emissions measurement laws to avoid scrutiny from regulators and the public. This poor estimation practice hampers the ability of regulators to assess the environmental and climate impacts of these projects, leading to inadequate approval conditions and pollution controls.

To address this issue, Australia's greenhouse gas emissions measurement laws must be strengthened. Coal companies seeking approval for new mines or extensions should be required to perform on-site measurements, such as geotechnical core taking, to accurately determine the methane content at the actual mine site. This data can then be used to develop more accurate models to estimate likely methane emissions from the project, which must be submitted to regulators as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

Australia's environmental approval laws are based on the disclosure of accurate and complete information during the approval process. However, current greenhouse gas emissions measurement laws leave regulators blind to the full extent of methane pollution from major coal projects. This unaccounted-for pollution will have long-term consequences for Australia's environment and climate.

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