Extinguishing or preventing coal seam fires is a potential cause area

Much green­house gas emis­sions comes from un­con­trol­led un­der­ground coal fires. I can’t find any de­tailed source on its share of global CO2 emis­sions; I see es­ti­mates for both 0.3% and 3% quoted for coal seam fires just in China, which is per­haps the world’s worst offen­der. Another rudi­men­tary calcu­la­tion said 2-3% of global CO2 emis­sions comes from coal fires. They also seem to have pretty bad lo­cal health and eco­nomic effects, even com­pared to coal burn­ing in a power plant (it’s to­tally un­filtered, though it’s usu­ally diffuse in ru­ral ar­eas).

There are some meth­ods available now and on the hori­zon to try and put the fires out, and some have been prac­ticed—see the Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle. How­ever the con­tinued pres­ence of so many of these fires in­di­cates a ma­jor prob­lem to be solved with new tech­niques and/​or fund­ing for the use of ex­ist­ing tech­niques.

Coal seam fires were not men­tioned by Let’s Fund or by GWWC. Coal seam fires were not men­tioned in the Founders Pledge cli­mate change re­port, but we can plug it into the method­ol­ogy in the re­port. We can es­ti­mate that the world’s fires will cause 30 gi­ga­tons of CO2e emis­sions by 2050 (based on 3% of cur­rent global emis­sions, and as­sum­ing that the ab­solute amount will be fixed through 2050) which gives 4 points for im­por­tance. I can’t find any ex­am­ples of philan­thropic fund­ing ded­i­cated for the is­sue, so it gets 16 points for philan­thropic ne­glect­ed­ness.

Mean­while, the US seems to face a lit­tle more than $1bn in ex­penses for all com­pleted, cur­rent and pro­jected coal fire pro­jects, which could mean a few tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars per year. This op-ed from last year ac­cuses en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists of wholly ig­nor­ing the prob­lem of coal seam fires. Jay Inslee’s ‘Green New Deal’ pro­posal (prob­a­bly the most am­bi­tious and de­tailed) does not ex­plic­itly men­tion the is­sue. So the the gov­ern­ment and pri­vate sec­tor even in all coun­tries can be pre­sumed to spend less than $4bn on the prob­lem, giv­ing it 16 points for non-philan­thropic ne­glect­ed­ness too. This cre­ates a score of 4 + 0.5*(16+16) = 20 points, ty­ing it for 4th place among 7 cli­mate change efforts, though I don’t think this method­ol­ogy is re­ally ac­cu­rate.

Another ap­proach is to di­rectly es­ti­mate the cost-effec­tive­ness. The var­i­ous early failed and re­jected at­tempts to ex­tin­guish the Cen­tralia, PN fire each cost $80,000-$360,000 in to­day’s money ac­cord­ing to the Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle, so we might imag­ine that an early, quick $500,000 of ex­tra fund­ing would have ex­tin­guished it, but this re­lies on hind­sight (know­ing that the ex­ist­ing efforts would fail, and know­ing that the coal fire would grow so much) so let’s as­sume that a strat­egy of go­ing the ex­tra mile in ex­tin­guish­ing ten po­ten­tially big coal fires (=$5 mil­lion) would have saved Cen­tralia. (The US has prob­a­bly already up­dated to much higher stan­dards, but In­dia/​China/​In­done­sia may have plenty of similarly low-hang­ing fruit.) Then a pro­posed fi­nal solu­tion to putting out the fire by liter­ally ex­ca­vat­ing the whole thing was quoted at $660 mil­lion in 1984, which is $1.6 billion to­day (CPI).

I can’t find es­ti­mates of the Cen­tralia emis­sions but the Mulga, AL fire seems to put out a mean flux of 3,400 grams per square me­ter per day, and the Cen­tralia fire cov­ers 3,700 acres which is 15 mil­lion square me­ters, so if the flux is the same then 40 years of Cen­tralia burn­ing (note: it’s ac­tu­ally ex­pected to con­tinue for cen­turies) cre­ates 745 mil­lion met­ric tonnes of CO2. Thus, the gar­gan­tuan ex­ca­va­tion pro­ject ac­tu­ally has a rea­son­ably at­trac­tive effec­tive­ness at $2.15 per met­ric ton CO2e averted, whereas a proac­tive early strat­egy would have a re­mark­able effec­tive­ness of $0.007 per met­ric ton CO2e averted. For com­par­i­son, effec­tive cli­mate change char­i­ties are es­ti­mated to have im­pacts be­tween $0.12 and $1 per met­ric tonne Co2e averted, the more widely quoted offset costs out­side EA are mostly $3-10 per tonne, and the so­cial cost of car­bon (ig­nor­ing an­i­mal im­pacts) is usu­ally es­ti­mated be­tween $25 and $200 per tonne. With to­day’s tech­nol­ogy I imag­ine we might be able to do some­thing much cheaper than ex­ca­vat­ing the en­tire burn­ing area.

It’s good to make sure that we have a causal story for why some­thing would be in­ap­pro­pri­ately ne­glected, rather than just trust­ing num­bers. In this case, ex­tin­guish­ing coal seam fires does not pun­ish fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, which makes it less ap­peal­ing to the pub­lic. In ad­di­tion, the lo­cal vic­tims are poor white Amer­i­can and for­eign Chi­nese/​In­dian/​In­done­sian min­ing towns which (a) get com­par­a­tively lit­tle sym­pa­thy from the pre­dom­i­nantly ur­ban pro­gres­sive Western en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist move­ment and (b) are not very en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist them­selves. Fi­nally, it doesn’t in­volve cool-look­ing new tech­nol­ogy con­struc­tion or vir­tu­ous tree-plant­ing, it in­volves no no­tion of progress, just bor­ing and dirty main­te­nance.

In sev­eral of the ar­ti­cles on coal seam fires I have seen state­ments that a lack of money con­strains efforts to ex­tin­guish them. How­ever as far as I can tell there are no ready chan­nels for donat­ing money to this work. That gap would have to be over­come by philan­thropic en­trepreneurs and re­search fun­ders. Also, we could ask our rep­re­sen­ta­tives to push a rele­vant bill (it seems like a good bi­par­ti­san mea­sure that could be sup­ported by both Repub­li­cans and Democrats).