Why keep mining coal?



About 25 years ago, I was working in Vietnam in the oil business. At the time, Vietnam was still fairly underdeveloped even 20 years after the end of the “American” or Vietnam War. International oil and gas operators in exploration and development have strict and comprehensive safety requirements, which are implemented and enforced wherever they may be operating and which are used even if they greatly exceed requirements of laws of nations in which they are doing their work.

In Vietnam, local workers were required among other things to wear hard hats. The sub-contractors were also required to provide hard hats to their workers, and indeed they all turned up with nice shiny, new “hard hats.” But on checking, they were made from papier-mâché—not really useful if something hard banged into them!

I remember a discussion one night about what would happen if one of the expats’ houses caught fire. The conclusion was that you would just gather up what you could, and run—there were no fire engines in Saigon at the time (or if there had been some left behind by the Americans, they didn’t work).

Strict rules set by the international oil operators were there to minimize the risk of people being killed or injured, oil exploration and production being a very dangerous business. Many civilian areas where people work in order to earn a living—civil engineering and construction generally, mining, commercial diving, firefighting, fishing, etc.—were as dangerous.

It is the responsibility of the state but, more important, of the employers to protect their workers from hazards in the workplace. To protect them requires enforcement of rules that may be inconvenient to the workers. Wearing hard hats, safety boots, safety eye glasses, gloves and other paraphernalia that shield them from harm can be irritating and uncomfortable. So, it is better to wear slippers and be free to move your limbs about as you will, they may think.

But you cannot protect everybody from every possible eventuality because accidents will always happen. The strategy must be to minimize the risk of accidents happening as well as protect the individual worker should something unforeseen actually happen.

In many parts of China, coal mining is becoming unviable and the state is reducing domestic production needs because of difficulties and increasing massive risk to life of underground mining—the resource has been tapped well beyond the maximum safe level, to get more requires an unacceptable risk to life. In 2010, there were 2,433 deaths in mine accidents in China, compared to a US figure of about 25 for the year.

In the Philippines, in 2012, there were apparently 44 reported mining deaths and probably more unreported. China mined 3.2 billion tons in 2010, equating to 1.3 million tons per fatality. The Philippines does not produce much coal and of the 8 million tons it does produce, five million have been exported, mainly to China. This will not continue as China has apparently stopped buying coal from the Philippines.

If we assume that just 25 percent of the Philippines’ mining deaths are caused by coal mining, then the incidence of deaths from coal mining is nearly twice as bad as China’s 2010 record, and China is shutting down coal mines because the activity is much too dangerous!!

Coal mining is a dirty and dangerous occupation, and mining in the Philippines, at least according to the statistics that are available, seems to be a more life-threatening activity than it is almost anywhere else in the world. Coal is currently running at about US$ 50/ton for good quality product. Philippine coal is not of good quality—low heating value and containing lots of pollutants. It should sell for less. With China, the Philippines’ main market, restricting coal imports, the current worldwide low commodity price of coal and that from the Philippines being of poor quality anyway, it must be a major challenge to operate a coal mine for export on a profitable basis.

The result of this line of thinking is that mine safety could easily be compromised in the quest for profitability in a depressed and restricted market, and that given the apparent dangerous nature of coal mining in the Philippines, operational safety standards need significant improvement, possibly at the cost of profit.

There has been another wall collapse at Semirara with more loss of life and injury and the question must be asked: Is it really worth it to keep going? The Philippines already imports 15 million of the 19 million tons a year it needs of good quality coal from Indonesia, and domestic coal is for export—why bother to sustain such dangerous business and risk lives for something for which there is little or no market?

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.


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