‘Complete transition to green fuel in mining is challenging’

Mr B K Bhatia, Additional Secretary General, Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI) in an exclusive interview with Future Fuels shares his opinion on sustainability and decarbonisation efforts made Indian mining sector.

What are the initiatives/steps being taken by FIMI with regard to decarbonisation in mining industry in the country?

Ans:  FIMI’s efforts in sustainability started in 1999, where 10 global mining companies met in Melbourne (Australia) to analyze poor reputation of the mining industry worldwide and to address the sustainability challenges. Only 2 industry associations were invited – FIMI and Minerals Council of Australia. This led to formation of Global Mining Initiative (GMI) in 1999, which later became International Council for Mining & Metals (ICMM) in 2001.

Realizing the need to mainstream sustainability and importance of decarbonisation in the mining sector, FIMI through 10 leading Indian mining companies, launched ‘Sustainable Mining Initiative’ (SMI) in 2009. FIMI-SMI has been engaged in policy and regulatory interventions with the Government of India, Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, various national and international organizations. Activities of SMI-

  • SMI’s Sustainability Review System: As part of its objective, SMI has been assisting and advising mining companies to improve their performance in operational, environmental, H&S, social and governance through its Sustainability Review System.
  • R&R Plans for iron ore mining leases in Karnataka: As per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, SMI prepared the Reclamation & Rehabilitation plans (R&R Plans) for 100 iron-ore mining leases of Karnataka, subsequent to which operations in leases were allowed to resume as per approval of the Central Empowered Committee.
  • Developing Sustainable Development Framework and Star Rating scheme: The Ministry of Mines has appreciated the pivotal role of FIMI-SMI played in formulating and finalizing the Star Rating Scheme which has been mandated for all the major mineral mines in the country.
  • FIMI-SMI administers annual Awards in order to motivate and recognize the efforts of mining industry. FIMI Awards instituted in 1990-91 with the support of Ministry of Mines and MoEF&CC, it consists 12 awards in 6 categories- Excellence, Sustainability, Innovation, Environment, Social Responsibility and Health & Safety.
  • FIMI-SMI undertakes various other activities such as conference, workshops, knowledge sharing, networking with national and international organizations like ICMM, IUCN, UNEP, WEF, ILO, GRI, EITI, IFC etc to achieve its objectives of mainstreaming scientific and sustainable mining practices, technology adoption for decarbonization, promoting ethical behavior and ensuring responsible extraction of minerals, thereby enhancing mining sector’s contribution to sustainable development in the country. 

After COP26 summit at Glasgow, the focus is back on strengthening measures to cut down GHGs in mining operations? Do you think the agenda on green fuel transition in mining is heading in right spirit and right direction?

Part I: The Government of India has articulated its ambitious target of 500 Giga- watt of non-fossil energy at the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Glasgow, United Kingdom in 2021. It also envisioned reduction of total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes till 2030, reduction of the carbon intensity of the economy by 45 per cent by 2030, over 2005 levels and achieving the target of net zero emissions by 2070.

In line with global efforts to meet such ambitious target, mining companies in India are aiming to minimise carbon emissions. It is enlightening to mention that the mining industry is progressively working towards this direction. Mining companies are engaging a range of modern technologies including digitised mining, artificial intelligence, electric vehicles using modern equipment like surface miner, GPS enabled HEMM, many are generating their own energy from micro-grids powered from renewable sources like solar and wind energy.

Moreover, the Indian mining industry has been following SMI’s code of conduct since 2012, which is a set of 10 sustainable mining principles meant for voluntary adoption. Our member companies have already made a commitment to advance their sustainability performance and are required to report against their progress on an annual basis. Over the years, there has been significant improvement in the sustainability performance of the mining sector.

Part II: Coal being the most abundant fossil fuel, the Indian coal sector is the backbone of energy security in India. Currently, India is marking a fundamental shift for enhanced energy security by unleashing investment opportunities in the Indian coal sector. Among fossil fuel, India is well-endowed with huge coal resources amounting to 352 billion tonnes. India is the second largest coal producing country all over the world. For the year 2021-22, coal production in the country has achieved 777.31 million tonnes (provisional) and Government is focusing on achieving ambitious target of 1500 million tonnes coal production by 2030.

Fuel-wise installed generation capacity in meeting energy demand as on 31.03.2022, for fossil fuel accounts 59.1% out of which only coal and lignite holds 53% and total non-fossil fuel consisting hydro, wind, solar, waste to energy in total holds 40.9%. It clearly shows coal remains the single largest fuel in the energy mix. The Government has set a target of 175 Gigawatt of Renewable Energy Capacity by the year 2022 and the renewable energy sector has witnessed 16.07% growth in 2021-22 the preceding year. Despite the long-term importance of renewable energy, seeing the recent coal demand in the country, Coal will continue to have a major role to achieve future energy transition in India. So the complete transition of green fuel from fossil fuel energy will be challenging and may not be achieved in short and medium term.

What are the main challenges in the transition to zero carbon in manning operations – and what solutions have caught your attention?

Ans: The major challenge in zero carbon manning for mines is that the mining industry in India is highly fragmented with majority of the mines being in unorganised sector. Further in the organised sector, there are very small mines, ranging from less than 1 ha to 50 ha in size.  76% of the major mineral leases are less than 50 hectares in size, covering 9% of the total mining area in India.

Table – I: Area-wise distribution of mining leases in India

(Other than atomic, hydro carbons energy & minor minerals) as on 31.03.2020 (Provisional)

Frequency Group Area (in Ha)No. of Mining Leases% of Total LeasesArea (in Ha)%age of Total Area
0 to 239611.5%515.230.2%
> 2 to 589826.1%3,476.951.1%
> 5 to 1041413.6%3,045.101.0%
> 10 to 2038811.2%5735.681.8%
> 20 to 5047013.7%15,319.634.9%
> 50 to 1002748.0%19,554.026.3%
> 100 to 2002076.0%29,914.089.6%
> 200 to 5002116.1%69,555.8622.2%
Above 5001795.2%1,65,529.1752.9%
ALL INDIA TOTAL3,437100%3,12,645.72100%

Source: Ministry of Mines, Annual Report 2021-22

 In the case of minor minerals, most of the mining leases are less than 5 ha in size and are primarily in the unorganized sector. The unscientific size of land not only makes them unfeasible, but also leaves no scope for proper environmental management and sustainability.  

The sustainability concerns of small mines are very different from those of the medium or large mines. While large miners are able to comply with regulatory compliances and implement sustainable management systems, small sized mines, which are mostly manual, have limited scope to mine in a sustainable manner. Table–II highlights the challenges faced by large and small mines:

Table – II: Challenges for Sustainable Mining India

Small MinesOther than small mines  
Waste management and Dump space   Investment & Technology   Lack of skilled workforce   Transition from manual to mechanized miningLow-grade beneficiation and waste management   Performance improvement and cost competitiveness   Stakeholder expectations – Government, community, investors etc.   Infrastructure and supply chain constraints

Moreover, tracking greenhouse gas emissions as per Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 across a mining company can be challenging because they come from both direct and indirect sources. A growing number of leading companies are taking action to reduce the emissions gap and embracing ESG approach and taking this as an opportunity to drive innovation, increase competitiveness, and stimulate resilient growth.

It is imperative for all mining stakeholders, including policymakers and industry to adopt a holistic approach for incorporating long-term sustainability in the mining sector. It is a matter of satisfaction that majority of the mining companies both large and small have integrated sustainable mining practices and community development, leading to inclusive and responsible growth of the mining sector. It is crucial to adopt global best practices and latest technologies while operating the mines to achieve higher productivity, operational excellence and high health and safety standards.

What kind of technology solutions can enhance fuel transition in mining industry?

Ans: Mining companies are increasingly implementing technological solutions such as automated vehicles, remote operating centres, hi-tech drilling in mining operations and gradually shifting from the traditional way of mining operations. These new technologies are reshaping the mining sector by making the operations more efficient and environment friendly.  For decades, the mining industry has been dependent on diesel-powered machines but now the industry has started to embrace the benefits of electrification such as Electric vehicles which helps in reducing carbon emissions.

The mining companies are leveraging Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, automation, robotic drilling, as well as drone mapping and surveying to enhance fuel transition. The Fleet Management System has enabled the operator in capturing health and performance of heavy earth moving machineries on a real-time basis while reducing the haulage time. Digital Mine Management System is helping the mines to optimize mine operation, increase productivity, HEMM availability, reduce cost along with real-time analysis for decision-making. Many mining companies in the country are implementing conveyor belt system including pipe conveyors, slurry pipelines or using railway rakes replacing transportation through road thus reducing GHG emissions and saving use of fuel. 

Mining companies are not just only making substantial efforts for reducing carbon emissions but putting excellent efforts in afforestation, rehabilitation and reclamation. Some mines have deployed tree transplanters for nurturing trees, besides adoption of Miyawaki and vetiver techniques for waste dump rehabilitation, which is eco-friendly, cost effective leading to efficient dump rehabilitation. Rainwater harvesting is adopted for ground water recharge and recycling purpose. 

What are the most important things that you would want mining operators have to do for the realisation of NetZero goals?

Ans: Since, global energy mix is shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, there are abundant examples of both public and private mining organizations working hard to decarbonize the economy. These developments are helping to grow renewables, develop new energy carriers, improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and create new markets for carbon and other by-products as part of an increasingly circular economy.

At the same time, many of these commonly pursued steps to decarbonisation and net zero, such as increased electrification, wide-scale use of renewable energy and intensifying energy efficiency measures pose unique challenges. Creating and taking advantage of opportunities in energy transition and managing a mining company’s environmental and social impact are undeniably complex tasks. Technology and innovation will play a crucial part in achieving these aims. Miners therefore must ensure they have access to technical skills and capabilities to participate effectively in energy transition.

Along with this, miners need to focus on strong ESG performance by identifying their ESG stakeholders and their concerns, and then proactively engage with them. Local communities, regulators, investors, analysts, suppliers, customers and employees all should be given importance.

The transition to renewable energy sources has to be just and equitable and accompanied by a simultaneous transformation by prioritizing circular economy solutions thus promoting reuse, reduction, recycling while ensuring health and safety protections for workers and communities.

What is expected by the mining companies/operators from the government to switch over to green fuels in mining operations?

Ans: The pressure to change to green fuels is building on all sides not limited to mining sector only. The emergence of a low-carbon, circular economy is now possible and regulators are starting to show their support that spur climate action and establish a circular economy.

To switch over to green fuels, Government may scale up the efforts towards coal gasification/liquefaction by providing incentives or rebates for development and operationalization of such projects.

Further, the gestation period of auctioned blocks should be reduced through ease of regulatory regime of various mining clearances and approvals such as EC, FC, land acquisition along with rationalization of taxes. This will reduce cost burden and delays in commencing mining operations and boost investors’ confidence in the sector.

Along with this, more emphasise needs be provided on exploration of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, rare earths as these minerals are essential for manufacturing wind turbines and electric vehicles required to transition to a low-carbon economy.

New technologies in decarbonization strategies such as Renewable energy storage, Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS), Waste-to-hydrogen plants are reality now and should be encouraged. Since, renewable energy is rapidly descending the cost curve, instead of considering how to dispose of CO2 and other waste, many companies may by 2030 view everything they produce, including emissions, by-products and end-products, as a resource that can be traded to create economic value so that a new, cleaner, more circular economy can emerge.

Tags: BK Bhatia, Decarbonisation, FIMI, Fossil Fuel, Green Fuel, Mining, Sustainable, Transition
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