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India plans to triple underground coal mining to meet energy demand

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India is seeking to revive underground coal mining as it tries to boost production to meet the country’s fast-growing energy needs despite international pressure to phase down use of the polluting fossil fuel.

“India is on a high-orbit growth trajectory, expanding industrially and economically,” Amrit Lal Meena, a senior official at India’s coal ministry, said in a statement to the Financial Times. “Coal continues to play a key role in India’s economic growth and development.”

The ministry has outlined plans to triple output from underground coal mines by 2028, preparing to auction new blocks, accelerate environmental clearance and roll out incentives to promote foreign investment and domestic equipment manufacturing.

India, the world’s second-largest coal producer after China, currently extracts 95 per cent of its coal from opencast mines carved into the surface, and relies on the fuel for about three-quarters of its power production.

But underground tunnel mining, which remains common in countries including China and Australia, has declined sharply in recent decades due to higher costs and risks.

The push to ramp up underground mining comes as India searches for new sources of coal to meet rising energy demand in what is now the world’s most populous country and the fastest-growing large economy.

Meena has previously described underground mining, which requires less land than opencast mines, as “eco-friendly”.

“There is little disturbance on the land and almost no land degradation,” he said in his statement.

Shweta Narayan, a climate campaigner at non-governmental organisation Health Care Without Harm, criticised that argument. “Ultimately you’re extracting fossil fuels, you’ll continue to burn them, so the harm to the environment continues,” she said.

India’s reliance on coal has proved a point of contention in international climate negotiations at the UN’s annual COP summits, which will resume on November 30 in Dubai.

At the COP summit in 2021, India signed on to an agreement to “phase down” coal. But even with an ambitious plan to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, the coal ministry anticipates that India’s demand for the polluting fuel will rise from about 1bn tonnes last year to 1.5bn tonnes over the same period.

Increasing production from underground mines to 100mn tonnes by 2028 will help offset depletion at opencast mines and phase out imports, the coal ministry said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government argues that without major advances in renewable technologies such as battery storage, India lacks an alternative to the cheap and available fuel source to provide energy security to its population.

It also argues that it is the responsibility of rich nations, which contributed the bulk of historic emissions, to stop polluting sooner.

India’s per capita coal consumption is half that of the US, according to data from the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP) think-tank, and many Indians continue to have only precarious access to power.

Rahul Tongia, a senior fellow at CSEP, said that encouraging enough interest in underground mine production to meet the government’s ambitious goal of tripling output would prove challenging.

New Delhi’s past attempts to attract private investment for new mines have had only limited success, in part because of a lack of appetite among companies reluctant to make long-term investments in the fossil fuel.

“Underground mining has declined severely, and that’s because of economics,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it more environmental, but it’s certainly less disruptive to the surface area of the mines. It’s also far riskier, so that’s a trade-off.”

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