Turkey coal mine explosion: Rush for energy undermines safety

A Turkey coal mine explosion Tuesday lies at the intersection of the country’s soaring energy demand and lax mining safety rules. Coal mine safety has improved dramatically in the US and parts of Europe, but it remains a very risky enterprise in economies eager for the cheap form of fuel.

Kayhan Ozer/Prime Minister's Press Office/Reuters
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (C) greets people as he visits the coal mine accident site in Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa Wednesday. Turkey's lax safety rules and soaring demand for energy set the table for a poor track record when it comes to mining safety.

A coal mine explosion in Turkey caused more than 200 fatalities and left scores more injured in what is shaping up to be the worst coal mining disaster in the country's history. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for three days of national mourning in the wake of Tuesday's coal mine explosion.

The coal industry has dramatically improved mining safety in much of the world, but it remains a risky, dirty enterprise, particularly in developing economies where safety standards have not kept pace with rising resource needs. Turkey's lax safety rules and soaring demand for energy set the table for a poor track record when it comes to mining safety.    

The tragedy would be investigated to its "smallest detail," Mr. Erdogan said as reported by the Associated Press, and "no negligence will be ignored."

More than 3,000 miners have died in Turkey's coal mines since 1941, the Wall Street Journal reports, and the country's worst explosion to date came in 1992 when a gas explosion killed 270 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak. Tuesday's coal mine disaster appears to have started when an electrical transformer exploded, igniting highly flammable methane gases, and shutting off power to elevators used for entering and exiting the mine. It has quickly renewed efforts to tighten the country's mining safety rules

Soma Holding, the owner of the mine, said in a statement that the accident had occurred despite "measures taken as part of the highest and most sustained inspection process."

Turkey is undergoing some of the fastest growth in energy demand among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Energy use is projected to grow 4.5 percent each year between 2015 and 2030, approximately doubling over the next decade, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Much of that growing energy use is expected to come from the power sector, which relies on coal to produce more than a quarter of Turkey's electricity. The country imports nearly a quarter of the coal it burns, according to EIA, prompting efforts to boost domestic coal production.  

Coal is used to generate about 40 percent of the world's electricity, and demand is expected to rise dramatically in developing economies like China, India, and Turkey. The carbon-heavy fuel is a major emitter of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet.

While Tuesday's coal mine explosion in Turkey underscores the risks of mining, modern coal operations in much of the developed world have leveraged technology to vastly improve coal mining safety records.

US coal production has increased 62 percent since 1970 while fatal injuries have decreased by 92 percent, according to the National Mining Association, a trade group. Two-thirds of US coal mines operate each year without a single lost work time injury.

Still, accidents happen, particularly when safety standards are not followed. Just this Monday, two men were killed while engaging in a dangerous form of extraction called "retreat mining" at a mine in West Virginia. 

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