Coal is a fossil fuel which has been used as a source of energy in Canada since the 18th century. Canada is home to a tenth of the world’s coal resources, the majority of which (over 90 per cent) are found in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. In recent years, the coal industry has been increasingly targeted by the environmental movement for disrupting local ecologies, creating adverse health effects and contributing to climate change.
Coal is a combustible carbon-based sedimentary rock formed from the remains of plant life and comprises the world's largest fossil energy resource. It is located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. Coal is not a uniform substance; rather, it is a wide variety of minerals with different characteristics arising from the nature of its vegetation source, siltation history, and from the time and geological forces (including temperature and pressure) involved in its formation.
Coal is classified according to four ranks or classes: Anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous and lignite. Each is subdivided according to fixed carbon, and volatile matter content and heating value. The anthracite class, the most valuable, is a core resource for the steel industry, as well as some chemical industries. Sometimes referred to as metallurgical coal, anthracite and supplementary coals may be burned at extremely high temperatures to produce pellets of basically pure carbon, generally referred to as coke, which can then be used to produce steel. Though a mid-level player on the global coal market, Canada is a major producer of metallurgical coal, which accounts for approximately 90 per cent of its total coal exports.
Bituminous coal, besides its occasional use in steelmaking, is used as thermal coal for electric-power generation. Subbituminous coal supplies thermal-power fuel and steam for industry, and can be used in coal gasification and coal liquefaction. The lowest grade of coal, lignite, is used for the same purposes as subbituminous coal.
Canada's only known body of anthracite was discovered in northwestern British Columbia. Bituminous coal is found in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Alberta and BC; subbituminous in Alberta; lignite in Saskatchewan and BC. In Nova Scotia, most of the coal is under the seafloor; in western Canada — which has about 97 per cent of the country's coal — formations are generally concentrated in southern and central Alberta.
Canada possesses the 10th-largest reserve of coal in the world, with 0.1 per cent of the globe’s total proven deposits. (By contrast, the United States, which ranks first for coal reserves, possesses more than a quarter of global deposits.)
In 2011, Canada extracted and processed approximately 67 megatonnes (Mt) of coal, placing it 13th for production globally. More than 90 per cent of the country’s coal formations are found in Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan. At current production levels, Canada’s proven coal reserves will last approximately 100 years.
History in Canada
Coal has been mined in Canada since 1639, when a small mine was opened at Grand Lake, New Brunswick. In 1720, French soldiers began to mine at Cow Bay (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) to supply the fortress at Louisbourg. Cape Breton later supplied coal to Boston and other American ports, and to the militia in Halifax. By 1870, 21 collieries were operating in Cape Breton, but virtually all of them were abandoned in the early 20th century.
Commercial coal mining in New Brunswick began in 1825 and, except for some early exports, most of the province's coal production has been used locally. In western Canada, coal was first mined on Vancouver Island in the mid-19th century. The building of the transcontinental railways through Alberta and BC caused coal mines to be developed on the banks of the Oldman River near Lethbridge, at Banff, Drumheller and Edmonton.
By 1867, coal production had reached an annual total of 3 million tonnes: over 2 million tonnes in Nova Scotia, most of the balance in western Canada and a small amount in New Brunswick. By 1911, western Canada had taken the lead. In 1947, the year that oil and natural gas were first produced commercially near Leduc, Alberta, coal supplied one-half of Canada's energy needs — Drumheller alone producing 2 million tonnes of coal and employing 2,000 men. The rapid conversion of coal's traditional markets to oil and gas caused the coal mining industry almost to disappear. Beginning in about 1950, almost all coal used for domestic heating, industrial energy and transportation energy was replaced by petroleum products and natural gas.
Coal mining entered an expansion phase in the late 1960s, however. Canadian producers signed long-term contracts under which they supplied several million tonnes of metallurgical coal each year to Japan. This led to the re-opening of some closed mines and the development of new mines in Alberta and BC. At about the same time, Alberta and Saskatchewan began to use their substantial coal resources to produce electricity.
Throughout the 1970s, unprecedented increases in the price of oil focused attention on coal as an alternate energy source. In the mid-1970s, with the steel industry still growing, major producers such as Japan sought to further diversify their sources of supply. This led to more expansion of the Canadian coal industry in the 1970s and early 1980s. New mines opened, and new rail and port facilities were constructed.
The Modern Industry
Following an expansion of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, coal extraction has remained fairly stable since 1990, remaining within the range of 65 to 75 Mt.
As of 2010, coal supplied about seven per cent of Canada's total energy and approximately 12.6 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are by far the most coal-dependent provinces, each relying on the fuel to produce well over half of their electricity. Of these three provinces, however, Alberta burns by far the most coal in aggregate, producing about 40,000 GWh of coal-powered electricity in 2012, whereas Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia produced nearly 12,000 and 7,000 respectively. Canada produces more coal than it uses and because of an ever-growing worldwide demand for coal, almost half of its production is exported, in particular to Asian countries where demand for metallurgical coal is high.
Imports are anomalously high for a coal-exporting country because most of Canada's coal is located about 2,000 km from the industrial heartland of central Canada. As a result, the steel mills in Ontario and Ontario Hydro have found it advantageous to import most of their coal from more proximate mines in the US.
The extraction and burning of coal generates several environmental and health problems, and in recent years has increasingly been targeted by movements for ecological justice.
The industry is regulated at the levels of occupational safety, ecological protection and (to varying degrees) emissions, but given its large-scale and carbon-intensive nature, coal-based pollution remains a major problem in Canada.
The majority of Canada’s coal is extracted through surface mining — more specifically through strip mining or open pit extraction. To a greater extent than underground mining, surface mining destroys wildlife habitats and threatens water systems with pollution, but it has been increasingly embraced by the industry in recent decades in part because it is less dangerous for workers. British Columbia has attempted to restore approximately 42 per cent of the land disrupted by metal and coal mines, but long-term efficacy of this program remains unclear, given the evidence that surface-level coal mining severely damages the soil.
At the stage of combustion, coal is associated with very high emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants. Of the 10 industrial facilities in Canada that emit the most greenhouse gases, seven are coal plants.
Burning coal also has negative impacts on public health. In particular, coal-burning plants emit high levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury, which have been linked to a wide variety of illnesses including bronchitis, pulmonary disease and elevated rates of infant mortality.
Due primarily to these environmental and health concerns, a number of provinces — including Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba — have begun to move away from coal in recent years. Of these, Ontario’s ending of coal-powered electricity has been the most dramatic success story. In 2000, approximately 26 per cent of the province’s electricity came from coal. As plants were shuttered in the subsequent years, that number declined to about 19 percent in 2007, and eight per cent in 2010. In April 2014, the last of these plants, the Thunder Bay Generating Station, was shut down, making Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to fully eliminate coal as a source of electrical power. A small number of steel and cement manufacturing facilities have, however, been allowed to continue burning the fuel.