Post-Pandemic Recovery and New Plans for Coal? - Alpcan Efe Gencer


The rolling out of vaccination plans in the developed countries and the reopening of numerous cities around the world following the first year of the pandemic indicate that normalization procedures are being effectively tried out in certain spots. As certain restrictions, especially travel-related ones, are being lifted, the EIA expects a global rise in CO2 emissions for 2021 and 2022, while for the U.S., most of the increase is expected to be coming from petroleum and coal consumption. On the other hand, natural gas-related emissions are expected to be decreasing as a price increase is being anticipated for the commodity. If we take this as the elasticity of demand in the face of economic development and consumption, it would be safe to assume that financially distressed and stretched populations will resort to cheaper energy sources regardless of their emissions.

Suppose we were to look at developing economies, which hold a much smaller space on the media spotlights. In that case, their situation could be deemed way worse than developed nations who hold strong financial means to protect their economies. The case for coal usage to supplement the low-income groups and the energy-poor had been a point of frequent contention before the pandemic. Still, now that we're having physical proof of how real-world cases are acting out, it would be safe to assume that a large part of the argument will hold valid where the consumption of cheaper energy sources will increase in these nations.

Based on this likely reality, what can be done to ensure the most optimal solution that serves all stakeholders' interests? A topic that hasn't been a favorite amongst discussion groups for forming new energy mixes, Coal Based Methane (CBM) and Coal Mine Methane (CMM) are still options for the coal-rich nations to focus on and develop. Suppose natural gas will be the bridge fuel to fill the gap of mobility and intermittency of renewables. In that case, working on extracting these unconventional methane sources to capture the gas should not be deemed unviable and out of the question just because of the ethical dilemma of sustainability. Whether or not if the CBM and CMM's are extracted, the gases do seep up into the atmosphere once the actual coal deposit is mined or interfered with within the case of CBM's. Aside from the environmental benefits, the extraction of these gases beforehand also decreases the risk of collapsing underground mining sites where health hazards are enormous. The EIA is already estimating that CBM is making up %5 of the U.S. natural gas production, and the same set of production plans could be utilized in developing nations to ensure reliable and affordable energy access to domestic and industrial users.

Going further, the advances being made in the chemical sector now could allow for the Coal-to-Liquids to be applied to these coal-rich nations. An estimated prime source of future oil demand driver is petrochemical consumption in developing nations in the upcoming 20-30 years. A prime example, India, at the moment, houses numerous oil refinery plants that process and produce varying forms of petrochemicals to meet both its own and global demand. However, if we are to decarbonize the entire global energy system, pushing the petrochemicals production to developing nations will serve no real benefit except potentially operate these refineries under many lax regulations and cause further harm to local ecological systems. As was the case previously, if these coal deposits are to be mined, we should make sure that the most effective usage is made out of them. A big negative for the implementation of CTL technologies would be heavy water usage. In both cases, the financing and monitoring of the operations by international Development Financial Institutions would make the most sense in warranting that the wastewater is properly treated, the rights of workers are preserved, and that the whole process could be carried out a transparent matter where benefits claimed. Damages done could be recorded with the numbers.

Numerous counterarguments could be proposed to this plan of action. Still, without a thorough analysis of all the options, whether good or bad, we could simply be led into following a false ineffective action plan that might just turn out to cause more harm than good. Considering the volatility caused by the pandemic and the balances that it has changed, new contingency plans to optimize the emissions heavy scenarios should slowly be introduced to the system as the pandemic exacerbated the global poverty problem. If we are to ensure fair and just access to energy to everyone, we have to start considering alternative plans that align with emission reduction policies in different terms.