Coal remains a significant contributor to the economies of the world, and the backbone of many local communities, so simply closing coal mines can trigger a series of unintended social consequences.
GlobalData’s mining writer JP Casey talks to Claudia Strambo of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) about the difficulties in coal mine closure, and how governments and companies can affect those who rely on these operations.
Casey says: “On one level, it’s easy to call for an immediate end to coal mining. The industry is notoriously harmful to the environment, with the International Energy Agency reporting that coal-fired power plants were responsible for 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, and emissions from these sources increased by 280 million tonnes from the previous year. The industry also has one of the poorer safety records, with the US Mine Safety and Health Administration reporting that in the decade between 2008 and 2017, 207 coal miners died at work, compared to 197 in all other metal/non-metal operations put together.”
Claudia Strambo says: “History shows that when a mining transition is not well managed, the impacts on the environment, economy and social fabric of former mining regions can be catastrophic. For mining companies, making closure and post-closure plans together with local authorities and trade unions is important to manage the risks associated with closure.
“So far, mining regulations around the world have tended to concentrate on addressing environmental impacts, but international mining best practices are already giving increasing attention to the social and economic implications of mine closure too.
“When mines cease their operations, companies can actively develop asset closure and labour management plans with the participation of trade unions, regional governments and citizens.
“They can help the workers approaching redundancy through, for example, tailored training programs, support finding work placements, counselling and mental health support, redundancy payments and through open and honest communication about the closure. They can also support local organisations in charge of steering and or coordinating the efforts to create new jobs and address the negative socio-economic impacts of the closure.”
Strambo points to the Ruhr coal-mining region of Germany as an example of coal closure done properly. Over the last 50 years, coal mining has slowly been phased out of the area, with employment in coal mines falling from 390,000 in 1960 to 11,000 by 2014, and the sector’s contribution to the local economy declining from 61% to 21% over the same period.
Strambo says: “Some of the factors that have contributed to this success include workers’ active participation in the restructuring process and the use of socially responsible downsizing practices by affected companies, such as early retirement support, worker training programs and redistributing workers between jobs and sites.
“Another lesson from the German case is that strategies that aim to keep things the same regardless of changing trends are unlikely to work out. Big heavy industries tried to keep going the way they used to, but ultimately, they ended up having to diversify to survive.”