A recent post over on the “Mongolia Today” blog by Michelle Tolson has inspired me to join the dialogue about the local impact of mining in the Gobi.1 Ms. Tolson raises the very important point in her post that much of the coverage in the media and the political conversation within Mongolia about mining focuses on Oyu Tolgoi (OT) with usually only perfunctory mention of Tavan Tolgoi (TT), a massive coal mine located in Tsogttsetsii.
In many ways TT is the 7.5 billion tonne gorilla in the room when discussion turns to local criticism and anger directed at the mining industry. In fact, as Ms. Tolson writes, often the criticism and anger is directed towards OT, making it seem as if OT is responsible for every bad thing that happens in the Gobi. Its comprehensive, longterm stability agreement with the government ironically makes OT a handy scapegoat for the problems facing the region because the agreement by its very structure makes the company accountable to the government and the public at-large. OT is easy to pick out of a line up, whereas the many other diffuse interests active the in region are tougher to identify.
It is strange, however, that TT doesn’t face the same level of scrutiny as OT. It is only a few hours drive from OT and an equally significant mine. In fact, TT is massive. As alluded to above, it has a reported reserve of 7.5 billion tonnes of coal.2 To put that in perspective, in 2011 the entire United States coal industry produced just under 1 billion tonnes of coal.3 TT could meet the coal needs of the US for 7.5 years! It is reported that when it reaches full production, the mine will produce 15 million tonnes of coal per year,4 which is approximately 5 million more tonnes per year than all 194 surface coal mines combined produced in Pennsylvania in 2011.5
I think the fact that TT is not discussed nearly as often as OT contributes to a sense that nothing is going on at the site. Although there is no comprehensive agreement with a binding long term plan as with the OT project, coal is being actively extracted from the TT open pits. It is interesting to compare satellite photos of the TT site (below top) to the OT site (below bottom). The most recent Google Maps images of the OT and TT sites are unfortunately outdated having been captured in 2004 and 2005, respectively, but I think it is still a fair comparison given that both mines were essentially at their initial stages of development when the images were taken. The OT mine will begin as an open pit mine according to Turquoise Hill Resources,6 and yet there is very little surface disturbance in the satellite images of the site. This was still the case in 2009 when I visited the site. I surmise this is because the project is currently focused on building infrastructure necessary for commercial production in 2013 when the real digging will begin.
Compare this to the TT site at the same scale where the two open pits look a bit like cancerous scabs. Coal dust is visible covering surrounding areas, and it even outlines the roads. To date there is no comprehensive agreement for developing the mine like for the OT project, and in 2009 the site looked similar on the ground to the satellite images when I visited the site (see images below). I am not an expert on mines, so it is possible that this is what open pit coal mines look like from outer space.
The Kemmerer mine (below bottom) in Wyoming is the largest open pit coal mine in the United States.7 It is 1,524 meters (5,000 ft) long, 1,219 meters (4,000 ft) wide, and 305 meters (1,000 ft) deep.8 The image below is at the same scale as the TT image above it and shows only one area of the pit being mined. This mine produces about 4.35 million tonnes of coal per year,9 so it is much smaller than TT’s potential. For now, though, it is much bigger and cleaner looking than TT from outer space.
It should be emphasized again that I am not an expert on mines, and this comparison is based on obvious visual differences between the mines. TT just looks filthier than OT and a comparable mine in the US. It is also filthier on the ground. When I visited both TT and OT in 2009 I was struck by the extreme differences in the sites. TT was a humongous hole in the ground with trucks leaving the site ladened with coal, kicking up plumes of dust on the unpaved roads all the way to the Chinese border. It was definitely not a world class operation at that point, and it had the feel of a carcass being secretly picked at by scavengers. OT by contrast boasted very nice employee facilities, maintained a safe and tidy work site, and received extensive public oversight, which continues to this day. Both sites as far as I can tell would still garner those respective assessments today.
It is important to raise the question of whether everyone should be talking more about TT than the current attention it receives. As Ms. Tolson writes in her post, TT is arguably the mine that is going to have the largest environmental impact on the region due to the water demands of the site. It already is making life miserable for people who live along the dirt roads that trucks from the site use to transport the coal.10 OT should not be given a free pass but neither should TT. Yet, there is a sense it is not receiving the level of scrutiny its massive size and potential impact warrants.
1. Michelle Tolson, “Looking Past Oyu Tolgoi to the Southern Gobi’s Water Shortage,” http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2012/guest-post-southern-gobi-water-shortage/, (November 4, 2012).
2. Reuters, “CEO of long-delayed giant Mongolian coal project quits”, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/11/mongolia-tavantolgoi-resignation-idUSL3E8LB38Z20121011, (October 11, 2012).
3. US Energy Information Administration, “Annual Coal Report – Table 1. Coal production and number of mines by State and mine type, 2011, 2010”, http://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/.
4. Reuters, “CEO of long-delayed giant Mongolian coal project quits”, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/11/mongolia-tavantolgoi-resignation-idUSL3E8LB38Z20121011, (October 11, 2012).
5. US Energy Information Administration, “Annual Coal Report – Table 1. Coal production and number of mines by State and mine type, 2011, 2010”, http://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/.
6. Turquoise Hill Resources, “Oyu Tolgoi (copper-gold), Mongolia”, http://www.ivanhoemines.com/s/Oyu_Tolgoi.asp?ReportID=379189.
7. Union Pacific Railroad, “Kemmerer Mine”, http://www.uprr.com/customers/energy/coal/wyoming/kemmerer.shtml.
10. See Mongolia Today for an example of local protests: http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2012/herders-protest-in-umnigovi/.