Government is looking to revive mining operations in the Molteno area. (Wikipedia)
  • Reconnaissance assessments of the historical Molteno-Indiwe coalfield have been completed, minerals minister Gwede Mantashe says.
  • The estimated R122 billion worth of coal that can be mined there could bring change to the Eastern Cape.
  • But plans for gasification, and generating power that way, recalls a previously failed Eskom project – and could spell trouble for groundwater.
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The Stormberg Mountains are best-known for recording the coldest temperatures in South Africa, and sustaining the country’s first commercial coal mining operations in 1870. The small town of Molteno played a pivotal role in the region’s early expansion, funding the development of a railway system to open supply routes further north.

Molteno’s dominance was short-lived. By 1920, access to the abundance of coal buried beneath the interior Highveld forced the frontier town into a state of decline.

Now, almost a century later, the government is looking to revive mining operations in the area, drawing both attention and resources to the Molteno-Indiwe coalfields – for better or for worse.

While operations were officially reopened in 2008, with a small-scale open-cast mine at Indwe controlled by Elitheni Coal, delays and financial constraints halted drilling just five years into the programme. With help from the Chris Hani Development Agency (CHDA), Elitheni Coal managed to claw back some ground in 2019.

The Council of Geosciences, along with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, have far greater plans for the valuable Molteno-Indiwe coalfields.

Addressing the Junior Indaba on Tuesday 3 November, Mantashe expanded on the government's exploration strategy. “The quality of geoscience information available for investors is being improved and a comprehensive exploration plan is being developed,” said Mantashe. “In this regard, R268.3 million for the geoscience research library and geological mapping for exploration of mining has been allocated.”

This financial boost for the Council of Geosciences has brought the Molteno-Indiwe coalfields back into sharp focus. The organisation’s chief executive, Mosa Mabuza, noted that the extraction of Eastern Cape coal should be done in a “responsible” manner while furthering experimentation with “clean coal technology”.

“I am proposing that we put up a power station there, extract this coal and turn it into gas, which is more climate change friendly, and generate electricity as a source of development,” explained Mabuza. According to engineering advisory company, Aurecon Group, which was tasked with providing a feasibility assessment concerning water quality considerations for mining of the Molteno-Indiwe coalfields, the low-grade seam has become commercially attractive for power generation applications.

Mabuza’s energy proposal – known as coal gasification – will involve chemically converting the mined coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG). There is, however, a glaring problem facing the government's “climate change friendly” claim; coal gasification produces more CO2 than regular coal-fired plants.

With Mabuza’s environmentally friendly gas-fired power plans all but extinguished, the second serious conservation issue is that of coal gasification consuming more water than almost all other methods of energy production.

There are, however, less cost-effective methods of converting coal into gas; none without controversy. Coal-bed methane mining, which produces lower CO2 rates, involves fracking, which is known to contaminate water. Underground coal gasification, which was tested and swiftly abandoned by Eskom at its Majuba power station in 2015, has been deemed “commercially unsustainable” while also dangerous to groundwater.  

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