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Addressing safety and environmental risks of methane from Colombia’s coal mines

Colombia is an important coal producer. Its overall extraction represents over 81.2% of Latin American output. Its reserves constitute almost a half of the continent’s total reserves of these resources. Colombia is also the world's fourth largest exporter of coal with low ash and sulfur dioxide content.

The vast Colombian coal deposits tend to be gassy, causing significant working safety challenges to underground extraction. Since 2005, 1,395 people died in work-related accidents and additional 764 were injured, making mining the most dangerous sector of the Colombian economy.  

Over a quarter of these deadly accidents were caused by explosions. Their occurrence resulted from low awareness of methane-related risks among the local mining community, insufficient technical expertise in the field of ventilation, incomplete regulation, and unsatisfactory execution of the existing rules on mining safety.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide. While removing methane from underground workings is necessary for safety reasons, venting it to the atmosphere causes a significant harm to the environment.

However, if managed properly, coal mine methane (CMM) offers also considerable opportunities. Its capture and use not only constitutes one of the most effective near-term options to minimize the carbon footprint of the mining sector, but also improves working safety, enhances mine’s productivity, provides for localized energy production, and results in improvement in local/regional air quality. In addition, CMM projects can lead to positive cash flows to the mine and serve as catalyst for investment.

Well aware of the threats that methane poses, but also recognizing a huge economic and emission reduction potential of capturing it, in recent years Colombia has been undertaking considerable efforts to build its technical and legal capacity for development of CMM projects. Despite many positive developments in this field, however, the country still faces multiple challenges. It lacks sufficient technical expertise and investments. Its legal framework has significant gaps pertaining, in particular, to gas ownership. There is also a serious institutional overlap effectively hindering the necessary regulatory change. Consequently, there is a clear need for support and providing experience on which Columbia could build and move forward towards creating a friendly environment for investment in methane capture and use installations.

In order to facilitate transfer of knowledge and technology to the country, the Unit for Mining and Energy Planning of the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy engaged with the UNECE Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, inviting it to deliver a capacity-building workshop for the local stakeholders. The event, preceded by a fact-finding mission, took place in the summer of 2018, providing a much-needed platform for exchange of information between Colombian and international experts.

Building on this support, UNECE’s Group of Experts, together with the Polish  International Centre of Excellence on CMM and the Global Methane Initiative (GMI), recently delivered a seminar focused on the situation in Columbia, which this time was held outside of the Country. An event titled Coal Mine Methane as a Valuable Energy Source was organized in Cracow, Poland, and took place within the framework of the XXVIII School of Underground Mining.

The seminar took the form of a match-making event between the Colombian stakeholders and the international experts and equipment producing companies, highlighting the technical and regulatory methane-related challenges faced in the country. International experts and equipment producers responded to the specific needs identified and highlighted approaches taken in other countries.

A series of technical presentations addressing such issues as estimating CMM resources, drainage and fracturing, methane capture techniques and technologies, safety regulations, pre-mine drainage, ventilation, CMM project development and financing, as well as CMM’s role in climate change mitigation were delivered.

UNECE’s Mr. Michal Drabik observed that “such sort of match-making is precisely what the Group of Experts was established for. Seminars of this kind provide a space for discussion, during which the problems and needs of a targeted state are not only articulated, but also addressed by the foreign experts offering solutions successfully tested in their countries. Promotion of best practices and facilitation of technology transfer is at the core of the Group’s activity, and this meeting clearly proved that there is a need for, and a great value in our work.”

For further information on the workshop, including presentations and documentation, please visit: https://www.unece.org/index.php?id=51165