Why on Earth would an environmental campaigning organisation like Greenpeace want to take over a coal mine?
One day, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall decided to divest itself from a particularly dirty form of coal extraction in Germany, so it advertised that its mines were for sale. This came to the attention of Martina Krueger and her colleagues, who decided to submit an expression of interest. But Krueger wasn't an energy executive, nor was her organisation a mining firm – she was the acting director of the Nordic arm of Greenpeace.
It wasn't a stunt: Krueger and her colleagues were serious, conducting extensive economic calculations and making plans for how the takeover would work. Greenpeace's goal was not to continue mining, but to shut it all down, and leave all the coal in the ground.
That was in 2015 and in the end Greenpeace was excluded from the bidding process - but it is an idea that has slowly gained traction around the world. A growing number of campaigners, economists and legal scholars now believe that there is an environmental case for getting involved in the fossil fuel market: buying up coal mines and acquiring drilling rights, in order to do, well, nothing. It might even work out cheaper than other efforts to cut carbon emissions. It's a counter-intuitive proposal, not without significant legal and political obstacles, but could it actually work?
In October last year, the economist Alex Tabarrok at George Mason University spotted that a coal mine in Virginia was on sale for $7.8m (£5.7m/€6.8m), so decided to perform some back-of-the-envelope calculations to see if it would be a cost-effective buy for an environmentally minded purchaser.
Based on rough figures, Tabarrok pointed out that this Virginia mine was expected to produce around 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per month, an amount that could cost around $2.5m (£1.8m/€2.2m) to sequester for a long time. Therefore, the mine would pay for itself in just over three months. "It's time to re-up the idea of buying coal mines and shuttering them," he wrote. "Buying a coal mine and leaving the coal in the ground looks like a cost-effective way of sequestering carbon dioxide."
Buying up relatively cheap coal mines on a large scale could be one more tool that the world has to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels, and to keep thousands of tonnes of the black stuff from ever being combusted.
So, while Greenpeace Nordic may have been rejected in their attempt to acquire the desolate landscapes of Germany's lignite mines, it may just be a matter of time before someone else shows that it can work.
Today's OGN Sunday Magazine articles