Despite net zero carbon emissions targets, Australia forges ahead with coking coal as ‘green’ steel development lags behind

Australia is forging ahead with new coking coal projects for decades to come, even as the country carves its way towards its goal of zero emissions by 2050.

The money is being pumped into research and technology to reduce the carbon footprint of big polluters, especially in steelmaking, which accounts for 8% of all CO2 emissions globally.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal used in the steel industry and the second largest exporter of thermal coal, used for electricity generation.

So, in Queensland’s coal belt, where so many livelihoods depend on this black gold, how long will it last?

CQ University resource economist John Rolfe believes there will be a strong need for coking coal for the foreseeable future – that is, at least until green steel made without coking coal becomes economically viable.

CQU resource economist John Rolfe says regional communities that depend on coal mining could diversify their economies through agriculture and advanced manufacturing.(Provided: CQ University)

“It’s a remote possibility,” he said.

It’s a snail’s pace transition that mining companies like Sojitz Blue plan to capitalize on.

The company has three mine sites in central Queensland: Gregory, Minerva and Meteor Downs South.

Sojitz Blue is “committed to reducing its environmental impacts”, but also recently offered to expand operations at the Gregory Crinum mine to continue producing two million tonnes of hard coking coal per year until 2043.

Sojitz Blue declined the ABC’s request for an interview about its future, as its expansion plans are still open to public comment.

Two men wearing bright orange shirts and helmets stand with their backs to the camera watching a dragline
Sojitz Blue CEO Cameron Vorias (left) at the Gregory mine site near Emerald, which is proposing to expand operations.(ABC News: Rachel McGhee )

Professor Rolfe urges all mining companies to prepare for changes in supply and demand as technology develops.

“If carbon capture becomes more viable, it will likely increase demand for coal mining.

“But if alternative forms of energy become more viable, it will reduce the demand for coal.”

New mines planned for Queensland

A man in high visibility smiles.  There is heavy machinery behind him.
Ian Macfarlane, CEO of the Queensland Resources Council.(Supplied: QRC)

Ian Macfarlane of the Queensland Resources Council said the state could expect to see a number of coking coal mines open in the next three to five years.

Mr Macfarlane said there were three likely prospects for new mines in the state, including the planned Winchester South and Olive Downs mines near Moranbah.

The race for green steel has begun

According to Dr Arash Tahmasebi, director of the Steel Materials Research Center at Newcastle University, global steel production is expected to increase by more than 30% by 2050.

A bald man with glasses wears a collared shirt under a sweater
Steel expert Dr. Arash Tahmasebi says there is a lot of interest in market research on low carbon steel manufacturing.(Provided: Arash Tahmasebi)

But given its heavy reliance on metallurgical coal, deep reductions in emissions from the steel industry will be key to meeting global emissions targets and the race is on in the developing field of zero- or low-emission steel, or green steel.

Dr Tahmasebi said that, based on conservative estimates, steel produced from traditional blast furnace technology could decline internationally from the current 70% to 40%.

One of the most environmentally friendly methods being investigated is to use biomass to reduce the amount of coal needed.

“As blast furnace technology evolves…then the type of coke required in the blast furnace will be very good quality coke,” Dr Tahmasebi said.

He said other methods of producing steel, such as those that require methane or hydrogen, produced less steel.

End of structural steel at Brisbane site
Steel demand is expected to increase by 30% by 2050.(ABC News: Liz Pickering)

An American start-up promises to deliver commercial quantities of green steel by 2025 without using hydrogen.

The age of the blast furnaces will guide the future use of coal

When new technologies become commercially viable, says Dr Tahmasebi, countries like China, which produces half of the world’s steel, may be reluctant to jump in quickly.

A steel mill in China.
Dr Tahmasebi says most of China’s steel mills are relatively new.(Provided: Hugh Brown)

“Ideally you want to run that for 40 years, so there’s another 25 to 30 years that they’ll want to run their reactors.

“From some of these countries, there will be some resistance to switching to low-carbon alternatives and technologies.

“Blast furnace technology is also very efficient and produces iron at low cost, so a lot of effort will have to be put into alternative routes to reduce costs in order to compete with that.”

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