The fossil fuels winds of change – miners, farmers and environmentalists must unite

Thinking outside the box, or as the definition suggests: don’t be mainstream, think freely and creatively, is where the author of the piece below Bevan Robert Jones finds himself. He’s looking at alternative ways to deal with the environmental problem linked to mining. For instance the growing of mushrooms to rehabilitate old coal mines. But he cautions, the answer won’t come from government, it requires the miners, farmers and environmentalists to come together. Now that’s more likely a bigger challenge than the solutions themselves. – Stuart Lowman

By Bevan Robert Jones*

Whenever my uber-organic, permaculture partner berates me for going back into the coal industry, I always remind her of Lyndon Johnson’s advice that it’s “better to be inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” However, whilst he was referring to keeping his enemies close, I on the other hand have a lot of friends within, and sympathy for, the coal mining industry. After all, no miner or commodity trader goes to work wanting to destroy the planet. Most would probably like to see positive environmental change from within their own company, although the knowledge of how to do this is often lacking.

Meanwhile, the winter winds of change are blowing for the fossil-fuel industry, fanned by active shareholders and sovereign wealth-funds, who no doubt mean well, but unfortunately in reality are probably only ticking boxes. They are likely to be chasing any of the latest trends relating to impact investing, ESG, SDG, GRI, TCFD, FTSE4Good, FTSE Green etc. It’s a trillion-dollar acronym playground. The Equator Principles are the new 10 commandments although far more nebulous than the original. Investment Banks are the new priests, dictating how our money is spent.

Of course, environmental sustainability is vital but are any of these acronyms and methodologies of any practical use? Do any of their authors really understand sustainability? Nature acts differently in every environment and each solution is of necessity different. Understand your environment, not your acronym. For many homesteaders and off-gridders sustainability means putting back more into the earth than we take out. It means constantly observing and letting nature show us the best circular economies with positive feedback loops. Like selectively putting the “pot-ash” from winter fireplaces onto the more acidic soils.

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Like growing mushrooms to rehabilitate old coal mines. Combined with the right plants, mycelium significantly increases the rate of capture of CO2 and storage of carbon in the soil food web. In return for sequestering carbon, the mycelium gives plant roots more phosphorous which supercharges their growth. We have a lot of old coal mines in South Africa and I am sure that a tonne of oyster mushrooms is worth more than a tonne of coal. Oyster mushrooms taste better too.

What about trees? According to Project Drawdown, afforestation is ranked 15th out of the 100 best ways to draw down CO2. Open cast strip mines have created perfect terraces that would be any permaculturalist’s dream. We should be growing both indigenous and pine forests in these local biomes, letting the trees do the work of rehabilitating the soil and sucking out the heavy minerals. The pine forests can be used as biomass for blending with Eskom coal, the Yellow Woods just because they’re awesome. What’s more, Australian researchers have confirmed that deep-rooted Eucalyptus trees can pilfer gold from ore deposits underground and transport them into their leaves.

For every environmental problem linked to mining, I have no doubt there’s an exciting sustainable solution. Coal fines? Re-process with pyrolysis. Use the syngas for energy and biochar for soil amelioration. Inoculated biochar is the new fertiliser – an incredible sponge that holds water in the soil, whilst releasing custom designed nutrients. Where are the Bill Mollisons and Sepp Holzers in South Africa? Where are the entrepreneurs who could be helping the mining companies, doing great environmental work and creating thousands of jobs?

Why is it that we as a nation seem obsessed with a big business, big government, big tender handout mentality? Instead, small local farmers and miners should unite and find their own solutions together.

Read also: Sorry state of air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired plants

For now however the mining houses are shedding fossil fuel and no doubt dirty diesel will follow in due course. Let’s hope all those electric cars can find some other source of base-load power generation. This is leading to significant fragmentation in the SA mining sector which is handing junior miners the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the logistics of getting all that product to market works best at scale. It’s partly why we’ve always had the “Seven Sisters” controlling export coal rail and port allocation, as well as our imported fuels pipeline.

These developments are all also part of the reason we created African Source Markets, to level the playing field for all emerging African producers and consumers. The time is long past for a robust physical commodities marketplace in South Africa. For too long we’ve allowed others to offshore trading profits whilst emerging miners were forced into accepting discounted net-back prices. The formation of robust commodity price indices and an ability to lock in prices on a forward curve will also aid in local minerals beneficiation. Investors like to invest in such new technology knowing that their costs and/or revenues can be secured into the future.

A transparent market-based coal price (which is likely to be pressured downwards thanks to future Chinese oversupply), instead of an inflation-linked, ever-rising cost plus coal price, will also help Eskom Generation to manage its “clean dark-spread”, the profit margin from coal fired generation with carbon offsets. Perhaps one day in SA we will even be talking of the “clean spark spread” from natural gas, the “bark spread” from biomass or the “quark spread” from nuclear?

I love this country and I love the attitude and innate ability of our people. We just need to think beyond government being our wet-nurse and go and find those practical solutions together. I have no doubt that we will emerge with a perfect balance between mining, agriculture, environmental sustainability and putting back more into the earth than we take out. Then all those shareholders currently pressuring the big mining houses to exit fossil fuels might feel a little silly, having missed out on the new miner-farmer-environmentalist rush.

  • Bevan Robert Jones, CEO, African Source Markets.