iranian coal the mullahs come

Iran significantly expands coal mines in Tabas region

In the future, the oil nation Iran will sell large quantities of coal to Pakistan – probably also to strengthen its influence in the neighboring country, which is considered a U.S. ally. And there is another surprise in Iranian coal that the country wants to exploit: natural gas.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Thomas Stölzel“. Access the original article here.

Iran is seething. People are taking to the streets after a young woman died in the custody of the morality police a few weeks ago. But while the mullahs’ regime is under pressure at home, the oil- and natural gas-rich country is expanding its influence elsewhere in the Middle East – with the help of coal. Satellite images from LiveEO, for example, show the country significantly expanding coal mines in Iran’s Tabas region. And while liquefied natural gas (LNG) is barely arriving in Pakistan, which has triggered a severe energy crisis there, the mullahs are now jumping to the neighboring country’s rescue.

That’s not all. In the future, the state-owned mining conglomerate Imidro also wants to extract large quantities of unconventional natural gas from the coal seams underground. The black fuel is thus turning out to be a strategic strength for the rulers in Tehran.

Iran currently produces between 1.6 and 1.9 million tons of coal per year. Unlike oil and gas, Iran is not a heavyweight in a global comparison. Apart from Egypt, however, Iran is the only country in the region with significant coal reserves. According to Iranian media, current reserves are estimated at around three billion tons.

The Two Most Important Coal Areas of Iran

iran coal areas
Source: Own research Graphic: Konstantin Megas

Especially since energy prices are rising worldwide due to the Ukraine war and the increasing demand after the corona pandemic, there is a new source of income for the mullahs. Recent satellite images show that the regime is well prepared. The operator has visibly expanded mining in the country’s most important coal deposit, around the small town of Tabas, in recent years.

In the Mazino mining zone, for example, some 80 kilometers southwest of Tabas, five new open-pit coal mines have grown up in the past seven years alone. According to the Global Energy Monitor, around 1.5 billion tons of reserves are stored here.

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Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

The situation is similar 60 kilometers to the east, in the Parvadeh zone, where coal is mined underground.

Here, accesses were added to the mines where the fossil rock is now extracted. Especially in the east of the area.

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Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

In the pictures, this can be seen above all in the black coal dust on the barren desert floor and in the buildings that have sprung up in those places. The huge coal mine, which consists of at least four parts, now extends over a length of almost 30 kilometers. In total, reserves of more than one billion tons of coal are said to be stored here. According to a study by the British University of Exeter, the underground coal seam has a thickness of half a meter to two meters.

In recent years, Iran has mainly supplied itself with these products to keep its steel industry running, for example. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe prevented Western countries from supplying certain steel products to Iran. The country’s metal industry is therefore also considered extremely important for the regime.

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Parvadeh coal mines, Tabas district, South Khorasan region, Iran.
09.2009 (left picture): Nothing is yet visible here at this site in the southern part of the vast coalfield.
03.2022 (right image): In the meantime, an access to the mountain and several mine buildings have been built. In addition, lots of coal and coal dust from the mining operations can be seen.
Images: LiveEO/Maxar/GoogleEarth

Recently, Iran’s coal exports have declined significantly. From just over 200,000 tons in 2018 to just 61,000 tons in 2020, the government in Tehran now wants to change that. According to the Iran-Pakistan Chamber of Commerce, Iran will export half a million tons of coal per year to neighboring Pakistan in the future.

This is currently experiencing an unprecedented energy crisis due to the enormous rise in energy prices and a flood disaster that has destroyed large parts of the energy infrastructure. LNG suppliers have also apparently cancelled their forward contracts with Pakistan in order to prefer to deliver their gas to Europe, where they can currently achieve greater margins. Thus, the dramatic situation in Pakistan is likely to worsen in the winter.

What is a drama for Pakistan and its people is a blessing for the mullahs. Rising energy prices are even making a previously untapped energy source interesting. So-called coal-bed methane. This is nothing other than natural gas that is not stored in sandstone or shale as usual, but in coal seams.

Satellite imagery shows that in the Parvadeh area south of the mine entrances, numerous roads have been drawn in recent years, presumably for exploration. According to a recent study by Iran’s Yazd University, some 40 test wells have been drilled in the area in search of exploitable gas deposits.

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Parvadeh coal mines, Tabas district, South Khorasan region, Iran.
09.2009 (left image): The barren, rocky desert area south of the Parvadeh mines is still largely untouched. Yet large quantities of natural gas are said to be stored here in the coal seam.
03.2022 (right image): It can be clearly seen that numerous gravel roads now run through the area – presumably for the exploration of the gas deposits in the coal. Iran wants to develop these.
Images: LiveEO/Maxar/GoogleEarth

The result: the coal gas potential is large. The scientists estimate that at least 1.39 billion cubic meters are recoverable at this one site alone. According to a Canadian study, the world’s largest coalbed methane reserves are in the USA, at 49 trillion cubic meters. Russia is said to have 48 trillion cubic meters and China 37 trillion. For the region, however, even this comparatively small amount is a sensation. In contrast to the Persian Gulf, for example, there are no conventional natural gas deposits in central Iran. The scientists also recommend that the other coal seams in the Tabas region be examined for gas.

To extract the coal methane, the state-owned mining company Imidro must use fracking to loosen it from the coal rock and pump it out. This would also have advantages for coal mining later on. This is because methane can collect as dangerous mine gas in the mines. As recently as 2017, it triggered an explosion in another Iranian coal mine, killing dozens of miners. In 2012, several miners had died in the same way in the Tabas mines.

In the early 1990s, efforts were also made in Germany to produce coalbed methane. A consortium of Ruhrkohle AG, Ruhrgas AG and the U.S. oil company Conoco drilled coal seams in the Münsterland region for this purpose. But the yield was too low. Drillings in the Saarland produced slightly more gas. But here, too, too little to justify production economically.

The Iranian scientists from Yazd University, on the other hand, recommend promotion for the Tabas region.

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