January 29, 2021
Issue 354  |  View Past Issues

Editor's Note

The inauguration of President Biden and his party’s new majority in Congress promise  to reset both the domestic energy agenda and international climate cooperation. On the domestic front, the decision of a US court to overturn the outgoing Trump administration’s proposed coal power pollution standard provides a clean slate for the incoming government. At an international level, Biden has signalled part of his administration’s focus will be cutting off international public finance for new fossil fuel projects. The commitment is timely. In Europe, the foreign ministers of the European Union countries have called for an end to all financing of new coal infrastructure in third countries and phasing out unabated coal plants. 

Other shifts are already driving corporate change. In the US representatives of a coal industry lobby group have complained about increased insurance premiums as the dearth of companies providing coverage is hitting coal companies hard. Major coal producers are increasingly looking to exit the coal sector, with the Brazilian company Vale announcing its plan to sell off its Mozambique coal project. For its part, BHP has revealed a billion dollar writedown on its huge Mt Arthur coal mine in Australia ahead of plans to exit the thermal coal sector. BlackRock, the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels, has made more encouraging noises about driving companies to act on climate change but significant loopholes in its policies and plans remain.

Bob Burton


The world’s long, messy breakup with coal

While many experts believe coal is now in an unstoppable death spiral, the pace of change is slow when compared to the scale of the climate crisis we face, writes Laura Paddison in HuffPost.

Glencore is looking lonely as retreat from coal becomes stampede

As major mining companies look to exit thermal coal, Glencore is increasingly isolated as one aiming to keep producing coal for decades to come, writes Thomas Biesheuvel in Bloomberg.

How a dubious study is being used to undermine India’s emission norms

India’s Ministry of Power is championing a further weakening of coal power plant emissions standards based solely on a contentious report submitted to the agency by the Central Electricity Authority, writes Shreeshan Venkatesh in Carbon Copy.

Top News

US court overturns Trump’s weakened coal plant emissions standards: The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has set aside the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule which required only limited retrofits for existing coal plants as an alternative to the more comprehensive Obama era Clean Power Plan. The court has referred the policy back to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for further consideration. The court ruling means President Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency will have a clean slate in developing its own approach to cutting air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, from fossil fuel plants. (Inside Climate News, The Conversation)

President Biden signals shift away from international financing for fossil fuels: An executive order by President Biden includes a commitment to “identify steps through which the United States can promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy” while promoting green development. While details of what is intended are yet to be finalised, NGO groups have welcomed the announcement as a major breakthrough if it includes coal, gas and oil. To the dismay of First Nations and environment groups, an executive order freezing the sale of leases to produce oil and gas from public land excluded coal leases. (President Biden, Oil Change International, Bloomberg, The White House)

European Union calls for global coal power phase out: Europe's foreign ministers have called for the “phasing out of unabated coal in energy production and – as a first step – an immediate end to all financing of new coal infrastructure in third countries.” The inclusion of the wording on the coal phase out was initially opposed by Poland, but Poland changed its stance when the draft was amended to allow coal power with carbon capture and storage. The ministers emphasised the need for international initiatives to support a just transition away from “unabated” coal power and also to reduce methane emissions. (Politico, European Union Council)

Companies face human rights investigation over Colombian mine: BHP, Glencore and Anglo American will face an investigation over the environmental and human rights impacts of the Cerrejon mine in Colombia. In September the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, called for the suspension of the mine, which the three companies jointly own, “until it can be shown to be safe.” Government officials from Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and the UK will be responsible for the investigation of the impacts of the mine under the terms of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises which requires member countries to investigate alleged breaches by companies based within their jurisdiction. (Australian Financial Review [paywall])

Report reveals Europe’s coal power has halved since 2015: A new report by energy think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende has found that in 2020 renewable generation in the European Union countries surpassed fossil fuel generation for the first time. Fossil fuel generation fell from 40 per cent in 2019 to 37 per cent in 2020 with renewables rising from 35 per cent to 38 per cent. The report notes wind and solar generation respectively rose by nine per cent and 15 per cent in 2020 with the share from hydro and biomass remaining unchanged. Coal generation fell by 20 per cent in 2020 and has nearly halved since 2015. (Forbes, Ember)

First Nations and ranchers launch legal challenges against Alberta’s coal policy: Three First Nations groups and ranchers have launched legal challenges against the decision by the Alberta Government abolishing the coal policy which banned most open cut mining on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The groups argue the decision was illegal as the government had an obligation to consult on a policy change which would adversely affect the First Nations and the water supplies of up to two million residents. Facing a growing public backlash against its decision, the government announced 11 recently issued coal leases covering 1800 hectares would be cancelled and future sales “paused”. However, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said the announcement did not address the threat from coal leases covering 420,000 hectares including those by four Australian companies. (The Tyee, CBC, The Narwhal)

Chinese province defies Beijing’s climate goals: The Chinese province of Inner Mongolia is estimated to have permitted 10,100 MW of new coal plants in 2020, double the amount approved in 2019. It is estimated the plants and other new industrial facilities could, if operated as proposed, consume an additional 80 million tonnes of coal a year. Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air described the approvals as “pure insanity.” Global Energy Monitor’s China researcher, Aiqun Yu, said China’s system of using GDP benchmarks to assess the performance of officials was a key driver “in the local government’s impulse to pursue GDP increase, allowing carbon intensive industries to grow fast in these coal-rich regions.” Data from the National Bureau of Statistics reveals China produced 3.84 billion tonnes of coal in 2020, with production in December up 3.2 per cent on the same period in 2019. (Climate Home News, Economic Times)

“It f***s us at the very moment the world is watching us and expecting us to step up on the issue,”

said [paywall] a UK Government official of the decision by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, to approve the proposed Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria.


Australia: Independent scientific panel warns Clive Palmer’s proposed  Central Queensland Coal Project in the Styx Basin would pollute the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and dewater aquifers relied on by farmers.

China: Baosteel, the largest steel company in China, has announced [Chinese] that it will “strive to achieve” carbon-neutrality by 2050 with carbon dioxide emissions to peak in 2023 and fall 30 per cent by 2035.

Germany: Vattenfall is proposing to convert its recently retired Moorburg coal plant into a renewables-powered hydrogen hub by 2025.

Malaysia: Toyo Ink has partnered with China Energy Engineering Investment Corporation for the development of the 2120 MW Song Hau 2 Thermal Power Plant project in Vietnam.

Russia: Coal baron Roman Trotsenko confirms construction has commenced on the Taymyr coal terminal to cater for the export of five million tonnes of coal a year via the Northern Sea Route.

Serbia: NGO launches legal action against state-owned electricity company EPS over sulphur dioxide emissions six times greater than the legal limit.

US: US miners may get new COVID-19 protections in the early days of the Biden administration.

Vietnam: Japan Bank for International Cooperation admits US$636 million loan for controversial Vung Ang 2 coal plant in Vietnam will come from funding targeted for “environmental preservation”.

Companies + Markets

Vale looks to offload Mozambique project: Vale, a Brazilian mining company, has signed a head of agreement to purchase Mitsui’s 15 per cent stake in the Moatize coal mine in Mozambique and its 50 per cent interest in the associated 912 kilometre long railway and the associated port at Nacala. In 2014 Mitsui spent US$450 million for its stake in the mine plus committed to invest a further US$188 million to expand the project. It also agreed to buy a stake in the Nacala rail and port project for a further US$313 million. Mitsui has agreed to sell its stakes to Vale for US$1 each. Vale said it plans to sell the project to meet its target of cutting emissions by 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. Vale gained the rights for the Moatize mine in 2004 but it wasn’t commissioned until 2011. The company is aiming to increase production at the mine to 22 million tonnes of mostly metallurgical coal a year ahead of a sale. (Mining Technology, Vale, Global Energy Monitor)

BHP slashes value of Hunter Valley thermal coal mine: BHP announced it expects to write down the value of the Mt Arthur thermal coal mine in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales by between US$1.15 billion and US$1.25 billion. The writedown, which the company attributes to decreased demand for Australian thermal coal and a revision to the tax treatment on losses at the mine, comes ahead of plans to sell the project or spin it off into a standalone company. BHP estimates the mine is likely to be revalued at between US$250 million and US$350 million and produce between 15 and 17 million tonnes in 2021. The company also reported that due to the 91-day strike at the Cerrejon mine in Colombia, in which it holds a one-third stake, the mine will produce between 21 and 23 million tonnes in 2021, down 1 million tonnes on 2020 production. In 2015 BHP spun off the bulk of its thermal coal projects into South32 but decided to retain Mt Arthur and Cerrejon as the two largest volume and low-cost mines. (Mining.com, BHP [Pdf])

BlackRock panned for lack of action on coal investments: Reclaim Finance and Urgewald have revealed BlackRock, the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels, continues to hold US$85 billion in coal company stocks as a result of a loophole in its divestment policy which allows it to hold shares in companies earning under one-quarter of their revenue from coal. BlackRock continues to hold shares in companies including Adani, BHP, Glencore, RWE, Sumitomo and Korea’s KEPCO. In his annual letter to CEOs, Larry Fink and the firm’s executives acknowledged the need for leadership on climate investing. BlackRock’s Big Problem, a project of an international coalition of NGOs, acknowledged the firm’s new commitments but argues they contain loopholes and significantly stronger action is required. (Guardian, BlackRocksBigProblem)

South32 abandons proposed Australian metallurgical coal project: South32 has dumped its plan to develop the 1.1 billion tonne Eagle Downs metallurgical coal deposit in Queensland “at this time” as the “expected returns” do not meet the company’s target for new projects. South32 bought the part-built project from Vale in 2018 for $US106 million with a further $US27 million to be paid in later payments. The company said it will discuss the future of the project with its joint venture partner, the Chinese steel company Baowu, and “assess options that may include the divestment of our 50 per cent interest.” The company had originally estimated the mine could initially produce 4.7 million tonnes of metallurgical coal a year for the export market. (Mining Weekly, South32 [Pdf])

Insurance premiums soar for North Dakota coal industry: Jonathan Fortner, an executive with North Dakota Lignite Energy Council (LEC), has complained that increasing insurance costs and a reduced number of companies providing coverage for coal projects is “the No. 1 issue that our members face”. Fortner said insurance premiums for coal plants and mines had increased by between 20 per cent and 100 per cent. “This is millions of dollars in additional costs for the plants and mines in North Dakota,” he said. “This ESG [environment, social, governance] movement is going to cause problems for the industry,” said Jason Bohrer, the President and CEO of LEC. (Grand Forks Herald)


“A novel dataset for analysing sub-national socioeconomic developments in the Indian coal industry”, IOPScience, January 2021. (Pdf)

This 19-page paper, based on a dataset of the 459 operating coal mines in India, estimates employment at a district level and notes the implications for achieving a just transition away from coal.

Cutting the Gordian Knot: China’s high-voltage super grid evolves, The Lantau Group, January 2021. (Pdf)

This 11-page paper outlines the status of the ongoing development of China’s ultra-high voltage (UHV) power transmission network needed to allow renewable generation to displace coal generation with renewable power.

The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges, Sierra Club, January 2021. (Pdf). (The Executive Summary of the report is here).

This 24-page report ranks the coal retirement plans of 50 major US utilities and finds only 25 per cent of their coal power capacity is planned to be retired by 2030.

Feasibility of Coal in the Age of Renewable Energy: Hunutlu Thermal Power Plant Case , WWF Turkey and Sustainable Economy and Financial Research Association, January 2021. (Pdf)

This 16-page report finds the Chinese-backed Hunutlu coal plant in Turkey, which is currently under construction, is unlikely to recover its capital cost in 30 years even assuming high energy costs.

CoalWire #353 stated Chilean utility AES had placed two coal units at the Ventanas coal plant into emergency reserve several years earlier than planned. In fact, Ventanas 1 and Enel's Bocamina 1 closed at the end of 2020. The Ventanas 2 unit will close in December 2022.