About 10 years ago, coal discoveries in Kitui County was a major story and a prospect that interested investors, industrialists and the county communities. The coal story was even more captivating, when narrated as an integrated industrial opportunity together with the limestone deposits in the same county in Mutomo and iron ore deposits in the northern parts of Kitui and as well as Tharaka-Nithi.
Limestone is the raw material for cement-making while iron ore is for steel-making. And both use coal to provide heating energy. In fact, the renowned Nigerian investor, Aliko Dangote, was here in 2013 intending to clinch a deal to make cement using Mutomo limestone fired with coal from nearby Mui.
Coal is a commodity which cuts across mining, energy and manufacturing economic sectors. It is mainly used for power generation and for providing heating energy to heavy industries like cement and steel. Locally produced coal has the potential to become an economic integrator with large employment and gross domestic product (GDP) opportunities. Like crude oil, coal is an extractive and productive resource that creates real national wealth.
Policies and regulations governing coal production and use fall under three ministries and are governed by several laws. Coal production (upstream) falls within the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining under the Mining Act, while the coal energy use and licensing (downstream) are within the Ministry of Energy under the Energy Act.
The shared mandates and roles may explain why coal development has not taken off. Pinning down where ultimate responsibility and accountability for failure to progress the coal agenda is not easy. However it is apparent that Kitui coal has disappeared from the national economic development radar. Kenyans hardly hear about the subject these days.
The wider and more worrying question is whether government bureaucratic inertia and lethargy are smothering genuine economic opportunities like coal development. A fortnight ago, we heard a similar complaint coming from the Turkana oil investors, who said that they foresee delays in investment commitments due to what they said, is red tape in government ministries.
In respect of power generation, the big question is whether the Ministry of Energy and the licensing authority (Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority) are prioritising Kitui coal in future electricity supply mix. And here I am emphasizing “indigenous coal” and not “imported coal” which is the subject of a planned power generation plant in Lamu.
Are the energy authorities using the climate change “weapon” to deny Kitui coal a place in the power generation mix pie-chart? It is a fact that global institutions and banks are shy about funding coal power projects, and this is why we have to look for creative ways to put Kitui coal on our energy map.
While I sincerely and actively support climate change mitigation measures, I am also a pragmatist. I have often argued that Kenya has already fulfilled its global green obligations by having a huge fraction of its power generation from renewable sources (hydro, geothermal, wind and solar). Kenya can therefore blend Kitui coal into national energy mix, and still be within its global green commitments. This is exactly what other countries (China, India) are doing.
If anything, Kitui coal should be replacing imported high carbon fuel oil used in thermal power generation, and also imported coal used in heavy industries. There is good reason to classify Kitui coal as a priority energy and industrial project of national interest to raise its profile. Specifically KenGen should play a role in a private-public partnership power generation joint venture.
Across the world, electricity generation licensing is an aspect mostly influenced by high level lobbying by generation sub-sector vested interests, and it is not any different here in Kenya. Local coal may be disadvantaged because it does not have an institutional agency to support and steward its development as is the case with geothermal, renewable energy and nuclear participants.
In summary, Kenya should be pragmatic about local coal and not be blinded by the green agenda, having directionally met its climate change mitigation obligations.
Finally, it is quite clear that the responsibility and initiative for local coal development lie squarely within the Mining Department.