March 11, 2021
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Editor's Note

Perhaps the phrase to dominate discussions of coal in 2021 will be “accelerated transition”. In the last week Hungary confirmed it would accelerate the closure of its remaining coal plant. Two Japanese trading companies – Sojitz and Maurbeni – announced they would accelerate their exits from coal mining and power stations. In its announcement Sojitz added a surprise element of setting an end date of 2050 for exiting from metallurgical coal. In Australia, the Yallourn coal plant, which was previously slated for closure in 2032 will now close by 2028.

China’s long-awaited five-year economic plan contained no significant new commitments on the country’s emissions policy. At best, the plan’s omission of a target annual GDP growth rate leaves scope for constraining emissions-intensive development in the post-COVID era. Analysts point to other key sectoral policies due for release later this year and the accelerating rollout of new renewables capacity as reasons for optimism. China Huadian Corporation, China’s third largest power utility, announced plans to close 3000 megawatts (MW) of coal plant capacity in the next five years. On the flip side, the same day the five-year plan was released, another Chinese company announced it would proceed with a huge new coal-to-chemicals plant.

Bob Burton


Chinese new five-year plan sends mixed message about its climate policy

China’s new five-year economic plan has broken with the long tradition of setting economic growth targets but mentions carbon neutrality only once in the 148-page document, writes Shi Yi in China Dialogue.

How private equity squeezes cash from the dying US coal industry

Private equity companies have made billions in profits from capacity payments from coal plants they bought on the cheap, writes Tim McLaughlin in Reuters.

Turkish olive farmer battles to save her land from coal mine

A legal win has spared Tayyibe Demirel’s olive groves from the expansion of the mine feeding the Yatagan power station but Turkey’s push for more coal plants threatens swathes of land and the country’s air quality, write Umit Bektas and Ece Toksabay in Reuters.


Hungary confirms coal exit by 2025

Hungary’s Secretary of State for European Union Affairs, Attila Steiner, has confirmed the 884 MW Matra lignite plant, the country’s last, will be closed by 2025. The expansion of the 50-year-old plant had been mooted over the last decade but was blocked after a court ruling set aside the environmental permit for a new 500 MW unit. The government told the Powering Past Coal summit it now plans to increase solar capacity to 6000 MW and use European Union funds to retrain workers affected by the closure of the Matra plant. Hungary had previously been planning on the Matra plant operating until 2029, at which point some of the units would have been 60 years old. (Euractiv)

Top News

China’s five-year plan leaves details until later: In a surprise to many analysts China’s new five-year plan for 2021 to 2025 sets no absolute greenhouse gas emission targets. In a break from tradition, it also did not set a specific target economic growth rate. With the omission of a specific energy consumption cap the focus will be on the detail of the energy sector five-year plan and the carbon dioxide emission peaking action plan, both of which are due out later this year. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial said one reason for optimism is China’s target of 1200 gigawatts of wind and solar by 2030 with estimates of 75,000 MW of new solar to be installed in 2021, an increase of over 50 per cent on 2020 levels. (Guardian, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, RenewEconomy, Carbon Brief)

US state adopts new selenium standards, increasing pressure on Canadian province: In late February the US Environmental Protection Agency approved a new limit on selenium concentrations of 0.8 parts per billion in Montana’s Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. This has prompted Canadian NGOs to call on the government of British Columbia to match the new standard across the border. A recent Montana Department of Environmental Quality presentation stated selenium concentrations in Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the US and Canadian borders, are already at one part per billion. It is estimated that 95 per cent of the selenium entering the lake originates from current and former metallurgical coal mining operations in the Elk Valley in British Columbia. Teck, which operates mines in the Elk Valley, is the world’s second largest exporter of metallurgical coal. (The Narwhal, US Environmental Protection Agency)

Alberta First Nations groups call for federal review of proposed mine: Two of Alberta’s largest First Nations, the Siksika and Kainai, have called on the federal government to require an environmental review of the proposed Tent Mountain metallurgical coal project. The First Nations groups note the company is proposing to mine just below the 5,000 tonnes a day set as a threshold which would trigger a federal review. They also object to the draft terms of environmental review by the Alberta Energy Regulator which do not identify impacts on treaty rights as an issue to be assessed. The First Nations also want the cumulative impact of the project and four other nearby proposed mines to be assessed. Canada’s Minister for Environment is considering the request for a federal review of the project. (Global News)

First Energy noted Ohio regulator worked in their favour after US$4.3 million payment: In a previously overlooked corporate report filed in November 2020 First Energy disclosed the company’s US$4.3 million payment to a person who later became a state regulator led to the individual “acting at the request or for the benefit of FirstEnergy as a consequence of receiving such payment.” The then Chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, Sam Randazzo, resigned on November 20, the day after FirstEnergy revealed a payment to an unnamed individual. Since 2017 FirstEnergy and FirstEnergy Solutions have contributed over US$1 million to groups and political campaigns that supported the election of Governor Mike DeWine. DeWine signed the US$1.3 utility bailout law into effect which legislators are currently considering repealing. DeWine has not been named by the US Department of Justice in its investigation of the scandal. (Cleveland, Cleveland, Dayton Daily News, Energy & Policy Institute)

UK coal company launches legal challenge over reconsideration of mine permit: West Cumbria Mining has applied to the High Court for a judicial review of Cumbria County Council's decision to reconsider planning permission for the company’s proposed Woodhouse Colliery. In October 2020 the council committee approved the mine but decided to reconsider the project before the formal decision notice was issued after being informed of the UK Government’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. The council’s decision to reconsider its planning decision followed legal representation from South Lakes Action on Climate Change on the need to consider new information. The UK Government, which is due to host international climate talks later this year, has been criticised for its failure to block the development of a new coal mine. (Business Green, West Cumbria Mining [Pdf], South Lakes Action on Climate Change)

Australian state upgrades pollution standards as oldest plant set to close: In response to public pressure the Victorian Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced limits on mercury emissions and lowered the allowable levels of sulphur dioxide and PM2.5 fine particle pollution for the state’s three brown coal plants. The EPA has also approved two of the plants being exempt from pollution standards during start-up and shutdowns for up to 88 hours per year. The 47-year-old Yallourn plant has been granted an exemption for up to 600 hours a year “due to the frequency of its start-ups and shutdowns because of its age.” From July 2021 the new licences require the three power station owners to rehabilitate ash dumps and provide real-time air monitoring data. However, the EPA has set no restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions despite the plants being among the dirtiest in the world. Days after the new licence conditions were revealed, EnergyAustralia announced it will close the Yallourn plant by mid-2028. (The Age, Environment Protection Authority, Environment Victoria)


Australia: IFM Investors refused to refinance the Bluewaters power station in Western Australia due to concerns over coal power and the governance standards of the owner.

Australia: Most Queensland metallurgical coal mines operated at a loss in the second half of 2020 and, after a brief respite, are losing money again.

Bangladesh: Concern raised about the cumulative effects of coal ship sinkings near the Sunderbans World Heritage area.

China: Port authorities said no Australian coal cargoes are expected in March as unofficial ban continues.

Greece: European Commission considering bid of €530 million (US$630 million) for the closure of four lignite-fired units in 2021–23 and associated mines.

US: Wyoming legislators have proposed eight bills to keep coal plants operating and limit renewables.

Companies + Markets

Japanese utilities accelerate coal exit plans: Sojitz, a major Japanese trading house, has announced it will accelerate its exit from thermal coal by halving its investments in projects by 2025 and eliminating them entirely by 2030. The company said it would exit from all metallurgical coal projects by 2050. Previously the company said it would cut its thermal coal exposure in half by 2030. Another Japanese trading company, Maurbeni, has also announced it plans to accelerate its exit from coal power plants. The company currently has about 2600 MW of coal capacity and is aiming to cut that to 1500 MW by 2025 and 1300 MW by 2030. While the company has ruled out investing in any further coal plants, it said it will continue to invest in new gas projects. (Argus, Reuters)

China import ban hits Australian coal ash producers: The energy content of Australian coal exported declined over the last decade and ash content increased as Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian buyers sought out cheaper, lower-quality cargoes. China’s imports are nearly all cargoes of high-ash 5500 kilocalories per kilogram thermal coal, according to Rory Simington, Wood Mackenzie’s Asia Pacific head of coal. Demand for this product has doubled over the last 10 years to about 200 million tonnes with Australia’s share increasing from 15 million tonnes to about 40 million tonnes a year. Glencore, BHP, New Hope, Yancoal and Mach Energy all supply high-ash coal to the export market. As a result of China’s ban on Australian coal imports, exporters are now facing losses on mines geared to supply the lower-quality product. (Australian Financial Review [Paywall])

Coal company owned by West Virginia Governor hit by collapse of finance supplier: Bluestone Resources, a coal company owned by West Virginia’s Republican Governor, Jim Justice, had borrowed US$850 million from Greensill Capital, a company which entered administration in the UK and Australia on March 9. Administrators are in discussions with US private equity giant Apollo Global Management to take over some of Greensill’s clients. However, it is unclear how Greensill’s collapse will affect Justice’s companies. Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, which has championed the development of ‘green’ steel mills, is likely to be significantly affected as the largest client of Greensill Capital. Apollo Global Management reportedly has no interest in taking on GFG Alliance as a client. (Wall Street Journal)

Bangladesh formally axes two coal projects from Chinese funding list: A letter to the Bangladesh Government from the Chinese embassy in Bangladesh has reportedly stated China will no longer consider funding new coal mines and power stations. The letter was in response to the government notifying the Chinese Embassy it wanted to drop the proposed US$256.41 million expansion of the controversial Barapukuria coal mine and the proposed 350 MW Gazaria coal plant from a list of projects China agreed to consider funding. The projects were included on the list of projects to be considered as part of a memorandum of understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October 2016. In early 2020 the Rural Power Company proposed the cancellation of the Gazaria project due to strong public opposition. The Barapukuria mine has also long been strongly opposed by the local community. (Daily Star)

Chinese utility to shut 3000 MW of coal units as renewables focus grows: China Huadian Corporation, China’s third largest power utility, aims to close 3000 MW of coal plant capacity in the next five years. The utility, which has about 108,000 MW of coal and gas capacity, said it plans to add 75,000 MW of new renewable capacity over the 2021–2025 period to ensure greenhouse gas emissions from its portfolio of power projects peak by 2025. The company’s statement to Reuters news agency did not identify which coal units would close. China’s power utilities are under pressure to meet President Xi Jinping’s goal of domestic greenhouse gas emissions peaking before 2030 and to be carbon-neutral by 2060. (Reuters)

Chinese coal-to-chemicals plant to proceed: The same day as China’s five-year plan was unveiled, Ningxia Baofeng Energy Group announced it will proceed with the construction of US$10 billion coal-to-olefins plant in Inner Mongolia. The company said the plant, which would be part funded by the Bank of Communications and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, would produce 11 million tons of methanol a year for conversion to 4 million tons of olefins. Olefins are used in the production of plastics. The company said the plant would be completed by 2023. The International Energy Agency has described China’s coal-to-chemicals plants as a “significant environmental challenge” with emissions far higher than gas-based chemical production. (BloombergQuint)

Coal India pushes ahead with mine expansion plans: Coal India has approved spending US$6.4 billion on the construction of eight new coal mines and the expansion of 24 existing mines. The government-owned company said the projects would add an additional 193 million tonnes of capacity per year at their peak with an addition 81 million tonnes due online by 2024. The company said it will also invest in additional rail infrastructure to the mines as the company seeks to cut its workforce with reduced reliance on trucking and increased investments in coal handling plants. The expansion plans reflect the government’s repeated emphasis on cutting thermal coal imports. (Business Standard)


“The death valley of coal – Modelling COVID-19 recovery scenarios for steam coal markets”, Applied Energy, March 9, 2021.

This journal article finds even low thermal coal use post-COVID-19 scenarios would be insufficient to meet climate targets.