South Africa and Australia continue as global leaders in coal processing technologies and practices, along with the emergence of China as a major force. Since 2010 the United States’ coal sector has been in a major decline, MARSHALL MILLER & ASSOCIATES senior principal PETER BETHELL tells LAURA CORNISH.

Based in Virginia, Bethell reveals that the Southern African Coal Processing Society (SACPS) biennial conference, held this year at the Graceland Hotel and Casino in Secunda in August, is not only the perfect platform on which to gain insight into the current status of the coal industry but is also the ideal opportunity to learn about new coal processing technological developments from “the field experts”.

“I always gain a lot of insight and knowledge from the SACPS conference, which in conjunction with visits to local coal plants enables me to work on introducing similar processes back home,” says Bethell.

South Africa’s coal industry remains a significant economic driver and as such continues to stay abreast of advancements and benefits from an on-going influx of young and dynamic engineers – unlike the US coal industry – “which has been negatively affected by the increase in natural gas production, alongside environmental constraints. The sector has consequently declined to levels not seen since the 1990s.”

Bethell further explains that “the American Coal industry has suffered several environmental difficulties and highly publicized fatalities which have only ‘blackened’ the coal industry’s name in America further.

It is not entirely negative for the world’s largest economy however. Over the last six months the United States has seen a marked improvement in supply from its coal sector – largely due to the pick-up in the global coking coal market. “The regulations that former president Barak Obama introduced which were anti-coal and punitive in terms of environmental constraints are being reversed and this will deliver positive results for our thermal market as well.”

Bethell continues, adding that he has to date seen an upliftment in the economy of some coal-producing states such as West Virginia and Kentucky. “Despite this, coal is still considered a dirty word in America, quite unlike South Africa and Australia where the mineral is still acknowledged positively for its contribution to large parts of the country’s economy.”

But, “considering coal is still important, particularly in South Africa where it is responsible for a significant component of total electricity generation, we need to continue focusing on ensuring we build a sustainable industry moving forward.

“The impact of coal on the environment must be considered. The improvement in coal-fired power generation environmentally as well as improved coal-burning efficiency, together with reducing carbon footprints, must also be prioritised – especially considering this commodity will remain the primary source of electricity generation in third world countries that are unable to afford power from more expensive sources.

Achieving a sustainable future requires a positive frame of mind from all players in the sector who must remain focused on bringing new technologies to the fore that will ensure long-term livelihoods for all stakeholders. “There is still a lot of room for improvement across all regions and it is going to take time – but through conferences such as those held by the SACPS, we are headed in the right direction,” Bethell concludes.