Can We Keep the World's Largest Coal Deposit Buried?

Al Jazeera English via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Mongolia is having a hell of a time figuring out what to do with the world's largest untapped coal deposit—it's the most sparsely populated nation on the planet, and it's sitting on top of a carbon bomb that could power China for 50 years. Naturally, industrial mining giants everywhere are throwing elbows for a piece of the action.

Here's the New York Times:

“All you need to mine here is a shovel,” said an awe-struck Indian investment manager as he stood behind a barrier, along with dozens of international mining industry executives and other eager investors, gazing at the immense coal pit gouged out of the rust-colored earth below... Mongolia has ... enough coal to fuel China’s huge demand for the next 50 years ...

While Mongolia may be blessed by geology, it is cursed by geography. Landlocked between China and Russia, its three million people face a geopolitical quandary: Every path to prosperity leads through their mighty neighbors’ territory. And Moscow and Beijing intend to make Mongolia pay dearly for the privilege.

That reality is abundantly clear here at Tavan Tolgoi. Beneath the earth lies the world’s largest untapped coal deposit, only 140 miles from the Chinese border. By one measure, the most practical solution would be to work exclusively with the Chinese, since nearly all the coal will be hauled there anyway.

But China is kind of a dick to Mongolia, closing its borders whenever the Dalai Lama visits and generally exercising economic thuggery. So Mongolia might instead sell the rights to Peabody Coal, the massive U.S. company, if only a state-owned mining corporation would yada, yada, geopolitics, yada, trade diplomacy.

The point is, there's a big effing pile of coal in Mongolia—enough to sate carbon-hungry China for 50 years. 50 years! That's a carbon bomb on par with the Alberta tar sands, certainly. That's a massive stockpile of climate-changing juice that environmentalists should probably be trying to keep in the ground. Right? Priority one right now is killing coal, or, excuse me, "transitioning to cleaner energy sources."

Which brings me to this good but far-fetched idea: Let's get somebody to buy that plot of land. Who could make such a multi-billion dollar purchase? I dunno—Norway is paying Indonesia $1 billion to not hack away its forests. Some sort of REDD-like mechanism could be instituted to create financial incentives for keeping carbon buried (if only they'd tackled that at Rio+20, maybe it wouldn't have been such a spectacular waste of time).

It'd be worth a mountain of carbon credits in the EU's trading scheme; too bad Europe's economy is unraveling faster than River Cuomo's sweater right now. Hm. Perhaps a jolly band of benevolent billionaires and their mighty foundations could come together to buy the coal deposit? Perhaps Mongolians, having seen so little of the spoils after Rio Tinto moved in and helmed a previous mining operation, would band together to oppose the massive coal-dredging project if there was a viable alternative.

If only. Still, the point is, we've got to be getting more creative about how we try to keep coal where it lays and unburned. Otherwise, U.S. coal companies start exporting coal. Otherwise, poor African nations get transformed into giant coal mines. Otherwise, China plugs into Mongolia for 50 more years of global-warming power generation. Otherwise, the climate is screwed.

Tags: Coal