DHANBAD, India (Reuters) - The slick mechanized operations at the Piparwar open-cast mine in eastern India, an ugly gash in the landscape bigger than New York's Central Park, could lead the casual observer to conclude that the country's coal industry is on a roll.
Piparwar, run by the state miner, produces some of the lowest-cost coal in India, just what's needed for a country struggling to get enough of the "black diamond" to fix a power crisis that recently plunged half a billion people into darkness and chokes economic growth.
With oil and gas output disappointing and hydropower at full throttle, Asia's third-largest economy still relies on coal for most of its vast energy needs. About 75 percent of India's coal demand is met by domestic production and, according to government plans, that won't change over the next five years.
The hitch is that India is running out of cheap open-cast coal from existing mines like Piparwar. Unless it starts investing now in underground mines, within a decade it will face a huge leap in energy import costs that could derail industrial projects, crimp economic growth and drive up inflation.
"With the ballooning demand for coal in India, open-cast mining has become the easy option, albeit at a great cost to the environment and society," said a senior executive at a power company, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"This easy option is likely to be exhausted within the next 10-12 years when the shallow seams amenable to open-cast mining dwindle."
Coal India Limited, the state-run miner that produces 80 percent of the country's coal, recognizes the need to raise the amount that underground mining contributes to total output from just one tonne out of every 10.
But the higher costs and lower output of deep mining - Coal India's chairman has said its existing underground mines are loss-making - are pushing it in the wrong direction.
Its plans for new mines target a contribution from underground of only about 7 percent.
That would be disastrous, argues D.C. Panigrahi, director of the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad, a mining town in the heart of Jharkhand, the country's most productive coal state.
He says that unless Coal India cuts its dependence on open cast mining by around 5 percentage points per year, overall output will start to stagnate around the end of this decade.
If India is going to meet its output targets of 750 million tonnes by 2016/17 - a rise of nearly 40 percent from the current financial year - it needs to act soon. It takes on average six years from planning to production for an underground mine.
India used to mine most of its coal underground, just as the world's biggest producer, China, currently does for its huge output of more than 3.5 billion tonnes a year. But it was not getting enough out of the ground fast enough to meet demand.
"When everything was underground, the growth rate was less than 2 percent per annum. We needed more than 5-6 percent growth and that could only come from open cast," said Partha Bhattacharyya, a former chairman and managing director of Coal India.
Open-cast mining strips away topsoil, or "overburden", to expose the seams underneath. It is much more economical than underground mining, where up to 70 percent of the coal must be left to act as support for the tunnels and galleries.
But while India has ample coal reserves - at about 286 billion tonnes, they are the world's fifth-largest, according to BP - not all of that is accessible by simply removing topsoil.
The other problem with open cast is the need to buy vast tracts of land, far more than underground mines, whose shafts, winding gear and offices can be set up on as little as 2.5 acres (1 hectare).
"Getting the land is becoming more and more difficult in a democratic country like India," said Panigrahi.
Protests highlighting land rights and acquisition issues have stalled industrial projects across India, including the country's biggest foreign investment - a $12 billion steel plant in the eastern state of Odisha planned by South Korea's POSCO that has been on the drawing board since 2005.
In Dhadu village, about 75 miles from Jharkhand state's capital, Ranchi, Electrosteel Castings Ltd has managed to buy just 435 acres of about 2,800 acres it needs to set up an open-cast mine and steel plant.
It now faces further uncertainty, with the government threatening to take back the concession amid the fallout from a wider corruption scandal over the awarding of coal blocks.
"We've given away our land happily to the company. But now, it has been four years. Nothing has come up and we are getting old. Our youngsters are unemployed," said 70-year old Asim Mia, who along with his two brothers gave up 1.5 acres of land each for the North Dhadu coal block.
Jharkhand is one of India's poorest states, despite its rich natural resources, and locals worry that unrest and unemployment plays into the hands of Maoist 'Naxalite' activists, whose attacks on coal facilities and railroads have heightened tension in the area over land rights.
The government is planning a revamp of the country's colonial-era land acquisition laws that India Inc. worries could force it to pay four times the market price for land in rural areas. That could hit the cost of mining projects and slow the pace of fresh production coming online.
About half an hour's drive from Ranchi, the criss-cross of railway lines and electricity pylons that map the state's rapid industrialisation gives way to protected forest land and the bright green shoots of this year's rice crop.
Some 30 percent of Jharkhand's land is designated forest, among the highest in India, posing yet another difficulty for companies in search of land for open-cast mines.
For every acre of forest purchased for industrial plans an acre of undeveloped land elsewhere, plus money for afforestation, need to be handed to the forest department, just one part of the complex process of securing state and federal clearance to develop forest land that one state government official described as "a game of snakes and ladders".
The average cost of open-cast coal for Coal India is about $13 a tonne, former CIL chairman Bhattacharyya says. For underground mines, the average cost is about $75 per tonne, according to analysts Wood Mackenzie, which makes many of them loss-making at current contract and market prices.
"Everything comes down to economics," said Wood Mackenzie's coal market analyst, Prakash Sharma.
"Companies try to look at the open-cast method first but when land acquisition becomes difficult, there's a compromise on mining costs and you opt for underground mining."
The economics will push India's power bill higher, and with it inflation: it is just a question of how much and when.
Already, surging demand for electricity generation means that Coal India's open auction prices are more than double those of its long-term deals and it has delayed sealing those commitments at lower prices.
Expensive imports partly fill the gap in demand and their contribution is set to grow, but buying from abroad currently costs up to 50 percent more.
In the most optimistic scenario envisaged by the government's Planning Commission, imports could be 182 million tonnes in 2016/17 from about 90 million tonnes in 2011/12.
Even under this best-case, Coal India would probably struggle to supply more than half of the extra demand created by new power generation capacity the government says is needed.
The power company executive believes time is running out.
"A severe power crisis is imminent if we do not shift our focus to underground coal mining," he said.
Editing by Alex Richardson