Poland faces an emerging resource rival

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2015

Substantial new coal deposits in the Lublin Coal Basin may soon overtake Upper Silesia as the dominant coal resource in Poland – one of the world’s largest producers. Sam Moorhouse explains.

Within European countries, the perception and opinion of different energy sources varies markedly. The fracking debate continues to rage, with Cuadrilla’s proposed UK-based Preston New Road shale gas site being refused planning permission in June 2015, while the Dutch Government recently apologised for ignoring links between tremors and natural gas extraction in the Groningen field. The opinion on nuclear energy remains divided – as France’s nuclear reliance grows ever deeper, Germany is currently on track to shut down all of its nuclear operations by 2022.

Recently, the major influence on the European energy market has been the oversupply of coal from the US, where mines continue to produce coal despite the shale gas boom. As with other sources of energy in the EU, views on coal are strongly held. The Norwegian parliament opted to pull investments made by its sovereign wealth fund out of all coal-related companies in June 2015 and even the Church of England has turned its back on the coal industry, recently stating its intention to sell £12m worth of assets in thermal coal and tar sands.

However, coal remains an important component of Europe’s energy needs. In 2013, 28% of electricity consumption was derived from coal. Global energy requirements are expected to grow by 37% by 2040 and demand will need to be met. Whatever the public or governmental opinion, coal can offer a more stable energy alternative and some countries continue to put faith in coal.

Within Europe, Poland is a significant contributor through its established coal industry. Having produced 144Mt of coal in 2012, Poland became the world's ninth-greatest producing country and Europe's second-biggest producer after Germany. Europe’s largest operating coal-fired power station is located there. Poland consumes almost all of the coal it produces and is the world's eighth biggest coal user – more than 91% of the country’s electricity is derived from fossil fuels. Historically, most of the country’s coal has been extracted from the Lower and Upper Silesian Basins towards the southwest. In 2000, coal production ceased in the Lower Silesian Coal Basin because of the fatally complex mining conditions. In the Upper Silesian Coal Basin (USCB), coal remains a major component of local and regional industry, as it has been since the 17th Century.

A history

While the USCB contains more than 80% of Poland’s domestic resources, the region’s longstanding coal mining tradition has meant that most coal is either in the process of being mined or has been completely extracted already. Historically, the USCB has housed more than 250 operating mines across Poland and the Czech Republic. According to a 2014 investigation by the Polish Geological Institute, 34% of the deposits in the USCB are considered exploited, and 29% abandoned, leaving only 32% as exploration sites.

The coal that remains in the USCB is becoming increasingly difficult to extract, particularly in the north-west of the region. Residual deposits exhibit unfavourable complexity such as complicated faulting and folding, igneous intrusions, steep seam dips, high gas contents, or simply poor lateral continuity. Dwindling quantities of workable coal reserves means much of the Upper Silesian coal industry is predicted to steadily diminish, paving the way for a new energy sources to meet the region’s growing demand. The Polish Government recently published a draft energy policy outlining increased dependence on nuclear and renewable energies to 2050 to help offset the decline in its established coal industry in the longer term. However, Poland aims to increase overall energy production by around 40% through to 2030. Balancing of this energy shortfall in the interim
will be dependent on a source of good quality, accessible coal.

Emergence of Lublin

The Lublin Coal Basin (LCB) is situated in eastern Poland and comprises bituminous coals with generally low ash and sulphur contents and a range of coking properties. The area was first explored in the 1960s, but remains underdeveloped in comparison with the rest of Poland, even though the seams are substantially less structurally disturbed. The LCB covers a larger surface area than the USCB (9,100km2 compared with 5,800km2) although it is largely unexplored. Of the coal sites that have been formally identified and classified, 91% are considered exploration sites, with only one mine currently in operation. Having exploited deep underground seams for the past three decades, Bogdanka is the flagship mine in the area. With the operators targeting production of 12Mtpa of coal by 2018, Bogdanka is the largest mine of its type in the world.

The Bogdanka mining operation supplies around 25% of coal to Polish power stations and is expected to continue producing until at least 2034, pending further exploration in the surrounding area. While the majority of Poland’s coal producers remain state-owned, the Bogdanka Group was successfully privatised in 2009, and its enduring operating success is a key indicator of the potential of the LCB in general, which itself is now starting to draw substantial local and international interest.

Future outlook

It is unlikely that project developments in the LCB will meet many hindrances, as Poland has a track record of developing successful coal mines based on well-understood geology and an established infrastructure. Geological limitations are uncommon within the LCB but those that do exist are manageable. During early development at Bogdanka, sinking of the Stefanów shaft was affected by a localised unconsolidated sandstone and conglomerate unit, the Albian Sands, which triggered collapse and ultimately abandonment of the shaft. This unit, and the presence of a Jurassic aquifer above the coal seams, limit extraction in the upper coal sequences but can now be well-constrained. The impact of the overlying units were minimised during a recent pre-feasibility study carried out on the adjacent property, by accurate mapping of the unit and application of an appropriate buffer zone to ensure no water ingress. As exploration continues to gather pace, the traditional Upper Silesian centre could one day be deposed in favour of the LCB, with its lower cost assets contributing significantly to the region's energy requirements.

Sam Moorhouse MESci CGeol CSci MIMMM FGS is a Senior Geologist at Royal HaskoningDHV, currently working on a pre-feasibility study for Prairie Mining Ltd’s Lublin Coal Project. His role as a geologist is to estimate the coal mineral resources for the site, which will form the basis of the subsequent mine design