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Why hasn’t Canada banned thermal coal exports?

In recent months, the people of Alberta have delivered a series of crushing setbacks to coal expansion in the province.

The decision by the provincial government in May 2020 to revoke policies that had long protected the Rockies from coal exploration was met by swift and widespread opposition. A broad coalition quickly came together that included concerned citizens from different political stripes, grassroots Indigenous groups, farmers, ranchers, environmental organizations, landowners, and musicians – all united in protecting the mountains, rivers, and the ecosystems and communities that depend on them.

Alberta is not a place where environmental wins happen often. But this broad-based opposition forced the provincial government to rapidly cancel the coal leases it had issued, re-instate the coal policy, and begin consultation on a new policy. One of the coal projects up for approval was also rejected, and another has been significantly delayed by an environmental assessment process.

While the fight is not yet over (several coal projects could still proceed, pending the outcome of the province’s consultation currently underway), the significance of these wins in protecting people and the planet cannot be understated.

Yet, these developments all concern the mining of metallurgical – or steelmaking – coal. To move Canada beyond coal altogether, we must also work to put an immediate end to thermal coal production and exports.

To meet its international obligations to address and mitigate climate change, Canada must take immediate, comprehensive, and consistent steps to phase out thermal coal production and export. There is no time to spare.

Metallurgical vs. thermal coal

Coal is the root cause of the climate crisis we now collectively face.

The industrial revolution was powered by coal, leaving a toxic legacy of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere. This legacy – coupled with a continued reliance on coal – is a key driver of climate change.

Drastic and immediate reduction of coal production and use could mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and begin to draw down the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Extreme weather events, forest fires, shifts in snowfall and precipitation patterns, increasing droughts, and unseasonal weather all highlight the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

There are four categories of coal: lignite (brown coal), subbituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite. Of those, bituminous coal is the most common and is itself sub-divided into two types: metallurgical coal (also known as coking or steelmaking coal) and thermal coal.

Metallurgical coal is the primary ingredient for making steel, iron alloy, carbon, and other metals. These coal products are manufactured into everything from buildings to planes to surgical instruments to silverware. 

Steel and iron production accounts for 7.2 per cent of global GHG emissions every year. But some projections suggest that, by 2050, increased global steel production could be met by emerging technologies, replacing the blast furnace method (the predominant method in use today, which relies heavily on metallurgical coal).

Existing direct reduction technology, emerging technologies such as hydrogen-powered steel-making furnaces and Electric Arc Furnaces, and the increased use of scrap metal could all reduce the need for metallurgical coal throughout the steel production process and reduce GHG emissions.

Thermal coal, on the other hand, is used to produce electricity. Coal-fired power plants make electricity by burning coal in a boiler to produce steam. This steam flows into a turbine which causes the generator to spin, creating electrical power.

Among fossil fuels, coal is the most polluting source of energy. For every unit of energy it produces, coal releases more carbon dioxide than any other energy source. It also creates the greatest amount of local air pollution.

Globally, 37 per cent of electricity is generated by coal-powered plants. The burning of coal accounts for 46 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. In the electricity sector, it makes up 72 per cent of all GHG emissions.

Moving Canada beyond thermal coal

The Trudeau government has promised to end all domestic coal-powered electricity production by 2030, stating that “phasing out traditional coal power is one of the most important steps in tackling climate change and meeting the Paris Agreement commitment.”

But despite this commitment, coal mines continue to operate in Canada and ports on the country’s West Coast ship significant amounts of both Canadian and U.S. coal abroad.

Currently, the vast majority of thermal coal mined in Canada is burned domestically. However, the phasing out of coal-fired electricity domestically could result in more Canadian thermal coal being shipped overseas, to power electricity production elsewhere.

Canada’s operational thermal coal mines are primarily located in Alberta, where there are six mines, and Saskatchewan, with two mines. Of the six thermal coal mines in Alberta, four mines are scheduled to close when the local coal-powered plants they supply are retired.

However, even as domestic thermal coal consumption ends, two mines will continue to produce coal exclusively for export: the Coal Valley mine and the Coalspur Vista Mine, near Hinton, Alberta. The latter is seeking to expand operations, potentially becoming the largest thermal coal mine in North America.

All of Vista’s coal is intended for export to Asian markets. Cline Group LLC – the U.S. coal giant that owns Vista and operates in Canada as Coalspur Mines – has proposed to expand coal production from six million tonnes per year to between 13 and 15 million tonnes per year. After a lengthy back-and-forth, the project is now currently under a federal review.

In addition to domestically mined thermal coal, Canada also exports substantial quantities of thermal coal from U.S. mines through the Port of Vancouver. Between 2018 and 2020, Canadian ports exported between 11 and 13 million tonnes of thermal coal – the vast majority of it American coal.

Successful community opposition to coal export terminals in the coastal states of California, Oregon, and Washington means that Canadian ports are one of the only ways for American thermal coal to reach overseas markets.

By exporting domestic and U.S. coal, Canada is directly responsible for the continued use of coal-powered electricity in other parts of the world and the dangerous GHG emissions produced as a result.

The work ahead

The Trudeau Liberals have for years promised to be a champion for real climate action. But while the government has committed to phasing out our dependence on coal-powered electricity by 2030, its commitment to climate action is undermined by Canada’s continued export of thermal coal.

During the last federal election campaign, the Liberals vowed to phase out thermal coal exports by 2030 – but that is far too late. As long as these exports continue, Canada will be an emissions enabler – not the international climate leader it claims to be.

That’s why the Council of Canadians has joined several other concerned groups in asking the government for immediate steps to phase out thermal coal exports through Canadian ports by 2023. 

By banning these exports, the government would send a strong signal that it is committed to meeting our international obligations for addressing and mitigating climate change and help move Canada – and the world – towards a more just and livable planet.

Join us in asking the Canadian government to stop being an emissions enabler and ban the export of thermal coal by 2023. Click here to sign a letter to Minister Wilkinson and Prime Minister Trudeau.