The safety of underground coal miners must never be taken for granted. The explosion at the Sago colliery at Tallmansville, West Virginia, on Jan. 2 has been widely reported by the North American media. Twelve men died. The single survivor was comatose in hospital for two weeks and may suffer permanent brain damage. Recriminations, rumours and reports of repeated safety violations at the mine continue.
We in North America demand our workplaces be safe and are appalled by a single industrial death, let alone multiple fatalities. Yet in China, coal miners die by the thousands every year. That country has announced plans to shut down dangerous, illegal collieries, but as I write this (on Jan. 18) there are four coal miners still trapped by flooding in the Hunan Province. Five miners escaped the flooding of a coal mine in Shanxi Province, but it took rescuers 20 days to recover the 17 bodies of their coworkers. Such reports parallel the view that China has a poor record of human rights.
The ultimate method of preventing underground fatalities is to remove the miners from the mine. One idea that might be considered is production from coalbed methane resources. By definition these are pressurized pockets of methane gas that occur within coal seams. Water injected into the pocket forces methane up through collection wells. Production costs are low, and workers remain on the surface.
Western Canada, the United States, China and India all have methane stores that are becoming an attractive energy source. Canada’s DYNATEC has a test program underway in West Virginia. In southeastern British Columbia several companies including FORUM DEVELOPMENT are interested in methane resources. RICHARDS OIL & GAS has drilled six methane wells in Alberta. BONANZA RESOURCES has hit its targets in Oklahoma. PACIFIC ASIA ENERGY is only the latest Canadian company to acquire coalbed methane licences in China. I suggest readers search Google News at news.Google.ca for more names of companies interested in this resource.
While coalbed methane cannot completely replace underground coal mining, if used to generate electricity it could remove many miners from potentially hazardous workplaces. If metallurgical coal could be slurried in situ and pumped to the surface, many more miners could see their jobs migrate to the surface. The next, and safer, generation of coal mining may not employ miners at all.