Whitehaven’s expansion risks doubling its methane pollution, undermining Australia’s climate goal

  • Sydney

  • 17 August 2023

Australia could face significantly higher methane pollution if its largest pure-play coal company Whitehaven Coal Limited (Whitehaven) continues its expansion of unabated methane emissions linked to its coal mines, according to a new report by global energy think tank Ember.

Whitehaven, which operates four coal mines capable of producing 30 million tonnes of coal annually, plans to expand its coal mining production to over 1 billion tonnes by 2050. It means releasing over 1.2 million tonnes of fugitive methane gas in the process, bringing a greater short term climate impact than the annual emissions of 56 million cars, according to Ember’s calculation.

Coal mining is the most important source of fugitive emissions of methane, which is 82.5 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide in the short term. Australia has signed up to join the Global Methane Pledge to cut global methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Yet, Whitehaven’s unabated methane emission runs counter to Australia’s climate objective. With its planned expansion, the company is already on track to double its methane pollution over the next decade, Ember’s analysis shows.

At the beginning of a critical decade to combat climate change, Whitehaven is planning to potentially double their methane emissions between now and 2030. This flies in the face of Australia’s climate commitments and asks serious questions about the amount of risk these expansion plans pose.

Chris Wright Climate Strategy Advisor, Ember

Ember also finds that across Whitehaven’s coal mines, there are clear transparency gaps concerning their existing methane estimates, resulting in potential underestimates of the true scale of Whitehaven’s methane pollution. This is relative to difficulties to track and verify methane in Australia’s coal sector, which should have been a major opportunity for climate action that can also strengthen energy security. 

Other key findings include:

  • Methane intensity of Whitehaven’s only underground mine Narrabri is 5 times higher than originally reported in the company’s environmental impact statements, according to Ember’s independent calculation.
  • In contrast to Whitehaven’s reported emissions, external estimates by the likes of the Global Energy Monitor indicate that Whitehaven’s methane emissions could be almost five times as large, with their existing and proposed mines emitting up to 6 million tonnes of methane by 2050.

The clear absence of methane monitoring and verification across Whitehaven’s open cut coal mines makes it difficult to accept the incredibly low amounts of methane they are currently estimating. As an analyst, this highlights the urgent need for Australia to improve its greenhouse gas reporting mechanism and ensure that every emission is accurately reflected.

Sabina Assan Coal Mine Methane Analyst, Ember