new coal supplier germany

Here Sits the New Hard Coal Supplier for Germany

Since Russian coal has been taboo, German energy suppliers have had to look for new sources. Recent satellite images of El Cerrejón in Colombia show how one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines is coping with the massive increase in demand.

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

Colombia is on the verge of replacing Russia as Germany’s most important source of hard coal. Electricity producer EnBW alone bought more than twice as much Colombian coal in the first half of 2022 as it did in the whole of 2021, which the group procures for its coal-fired piles in Baden-Württemberg. The El Cerrejón mine, one of the largest in the world, currently offsets most of the supplies that are no longer allowed or expected to come from Russia. Ensures that numerous houses and apartments in Germany stay warm.

In La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the workers extract the raw material from the mountain, it is currently a tropical 31 degrees. Coal is an important source of income for the people in the area, where many indigenous people live, but it is also a health and environmental problem. Non-governmental organizations and local residents repeatedly complain about resettlements and evictions.

Exclusive satellite images from LiveEO now show how Cerrejón, a subsidiary of Swiss mining group Glencore, is coping with increased demand from Europe.

The entire Cerrejón area is almost as large as Berlin. It consists of three huge main open-pit mines – Albania, Barrancas and Hatonuevo – and stretches for almost 35 kilometers. The longest mine in Barrancas alone measures around eleven kilometers.

  • El Cerrejón 1985
  • El Cerrejón 2004
  • El Cerrejón 2010
  • El Cerrejón 2016
  • El Cerrejón 2019
  • El Cerrejón 2022

Images: LiveEO/LandSat, LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/Airbus, LiveEO/SPOT

Initially, in the 1980s, the mine was still state-owned. At the turn of the millennium, it was privatized. Since that year, the company has officially belonged to Glencore.

At the beginning of April, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Colombia’s then President Iván Duque. According to the German government, the topic was “cooperation on climate protection and energy issues,” but nothing more was said. Whatever Scholz’s specific concern was, the figures are clear: Germany finds Colombian coal very convenient.

Colombia’s Coal

The way from the mine to the sea

Colombias Coal
Source: Own research; Graphic Gerd Weber

And also to the Colombians. In recent years, demand had fallen significantly. In the best year, the country produced 34.3 million tons. That was a long time ago. 2012 was that. Murdered trade unionists, the displacement of people from villages and massive ecological problems led to criticism of the coal companies and their German business partners. The latter oriented themselves more toward Russia: as recently as 2021, more than half of Germany’s hard coal imports came from Vladimir Putin’s empire, at 20 million tons annually. But now, since the Ukraine war and the sanctioned deals with Russia, imports from Colombia have picked up again.

From February to March, imports tripled in one fell swoop. Colombia overtook the USA and Australia as the most important source countries behind Russia. According to the latest figures from August, Colombia is closing in on Russia. 483,000 tons came from Colombia, 619,500 from Russia.

  • Loading Station Puerto Bolívar 2003
  • Loading Station Puerto Bolívar 2015
  • Loading Station Puerto Bolívar 2019
  • Loading Station Puerto Bolívar 2022
  • Loading Station Puerto Bolívar

Images: LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/Airbus, LiveEO/Pleiades.

They produce most of their coal in Cerrejón. Five to six trains a day bring it from the interior to the company’s own port on the Atlantic. A train makes the 150 kilometers in four hours. At the port, the coal is either stored in large bunkers or loaded directly onto ships.

  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2003
  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2012
  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2015
  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2019
  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2020
  • Port Facility Puerto Bolívar 2022

Images: LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/SPOT, LiveEO/Pleiades

For Glencore, its business with German energy companies has been a resounding success. Revenues are up thanks to increased demand and prices. However, a Glencore spokesperson would not say exactly how Cerrejón’s business figures have developed.

The mining companies are taking advantage of the hardship in Germany and other countries to push up prices. The price per ton increased threefold to 406 euros between February and August. While in February a Colombian ton cost 154.30 euros, almost 100 euros less than the global average (242.40 euros), by the end of the summer it was almost 40 euros more expensive than the average (379.20).

  • El Cerrejón Albania 1985
  • El Cerrejón Albania 2007
  • El Cerrejón Albania 2015
  • El Cerrejón Albania 2019
  • El Cerrejón Albania 2022

Images: LiveEO/LandSat, LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/Sentinel.

In recent years, Steag says it has met up to 20 percent of its demand for hard coal for domestic power plants through imports from Colombia. This came almost exclusively from Cerrejón. In view of the current situation, it is not ruled out that the company will continue to import Colombian hard coal “in the service of security of supply at least until March 2024,” it says. EnBW purchased only 210,000 tons of coal from the country in 2021 as a whole, according to a spokeswoman. In the first half of 2022, the figure was already 470,000, but the company is looking into further diversifying its purchases, for example with the help of mines in South Africa.

  • El Cerrejón Hatonuevo 1985
  • El Cerrejón Hatonuevo 2007
  • El Cerrejón Hatonuevo 2011
  • El Cerrejón Hatonuevo 2019
  • El Cerrejón Hatonuevo 2022

Images: LiveEO/LandSat, LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/Sentinel.

Not all major German energy companies are active in Colombia. When asked, RWE said it has “no direct supply contracts with Colombian hard coal producers.” “We source our hard coal on the world market; hard coal previously sourced from Russia has essentially been replaced by supplies from the U.S. and South Africa,” a spokesperson said.

Another German company is even indirectly active on the Cerrejón site. Falab, a Colombian subsidiary of the Munich-based laboratory services provider Synlab, says it has a contract with Cerrejón. At the Albania open pit mine and near the port, Falab has offices and performs laboratory analysis for Cerrejón for general health services, occupational medicine and Covid-19 testing.

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