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Coal Mining in British Columbia

British Columbia has a long history of coal mining that goes back to the first years of permanent settlement by Europeans. A region rich in minerals and coal, mining has typically played an important role in the provincial economy. Though the province uses very little coal itself, it holds large high-quality coal reserves that are in high demand in the United States and Asia. Since 1970 export-oriented coal mining has taken off, especially in the foothills of the Rockies in the province's northeast and southeast. Production has risen from around 800,000 tons of coal annually in the 1960s to around 26 million tons today. Investments in coal mines and their infrastructure have grown in turn and it's likely that more mines will open in the years ahead. These planned mines give added urgency to a call by the auditor-general for an overhaul of the way the province does environmental assessments. A 2011 report from the auditor's office found the Environmental Assessment Office had failed in its responsibility to ensure sound environmental practices are used at major construction projects, and had neglected to conduct adequate follow-up inspections.

The Line Creek Mine in the Kootenays
The Line Creek Mine in the Kootenays.

Geography and History

The province is believed to have recoverable reserves of coal numbering around 20 billion tonnes. Most of it was formed near the end of the age of the dinosaurs, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The coal is concentrated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains: northeast in the Peace River region, and southeast in the Kootenays, while substantial reserves can also be found on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Most of it is high-quality bituminous and anthracite coal. Total reserves are estimated to be 250 billion tonnes.

Because of these huge reserves, coal mining has been an important industry in British Columbia since virtually the beginning of European colonization; the Hudson's Bay Company began mining coal in the 1840s to power their steamers. Soon after, when the Royal Navy became coal-powered, Vancouver Island's reserves were seen by the British Empire as an important strategic asset. The coal-fields around Nanaimo in particular, easily accessible and bituminous grade, were ideal for steam-ship furnaces.

Underground mines were rapidly hewed out of Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Cumberland, and boosted immigration to the Island. Since then the focus of mining has transitioned to the Rocky Mountain foothills, and the mines have gone from underground to open-pit, partially a result of the difficult to penetrate geology of the Rockies.

The pace of mining has also quickened substantially in the past 40 years, partly a result of improved technology and partly because of rising global demand. In the former case, huge earth-movers developed since the 1970s have replaced men with pick-axes and made surface mining more efficient. In the latter case, coal in the Rockies is high grade bituminous and anthracite--more valuable and useful in industrial processes like coking for steel. Japanese and Korean steel-mills, lacking indigenous sources of coal, have turned to British Columbia for their supplies. As a result, of the 700 million tonnes of coal mined in all of B.C.'s history up to 2001, 80% was after 1970. Almost all of it has been exported. In 2008 production ran at just over 26 million tons.

Expanding Capacity

While there are ten coal mines currently operating there are another nine in various stages of the exploration and permitting process. Chinese mining companies are looking to enter British Columbia's coal mining market too; in March 2011 a consortium of Chinese investors announced their intention to open three new mines along the Peace River with an annual production of eight million tons. That would double existing production in that region. Vancouver Island is seeing renewed interest too. In 2009 Compliance Energy applied for a permit to open a coal mine at the so-called Raven site, just inland of Buckley Bay on the Island's east coast. This project has run up against strong resistance from local residents who fear the mine's runoff will devastate the local shellfish industry. The Raven proposal is currently being assessed by the Environmental Assessment Office.

A network of railroads brings the coal from railheads at mine mouths to ports where it is loaded on cargo vessels and dispatched to Asia (56%), Europe (28%) and South America (8%). Coal from the Kootenay coalfields is exported through the Neptune and Westshore Terminals in Greater Vancouver, while coal from the Peace River region goes through the Ridley Terminal in Prince Rupert.

B.C.'s ports are closer to Asia than any others in North America, and the shorter travel time means American mines in Montana, Wyoming and Utah are now using the Robert's Bank superport to export coal to the burgeoning Asian economies. Another important factor is that residents of Washington state have put up stiff opposition to exporting any coal from their own ports. Exporting coal to Asia, they argue, means exporting their American carbon emissions, undermining any efforts on this side of the Pacific to curb climate change. British Columbia on the other hand has seen little local opposition to coal exports. As a result American coal mining companies are able to circumvent their own environmental activists by using our ports.

The provincial government is eager to boost these exports. The federal and provincial governments recently pledged $750 million to "improve rail efficiency and add capacity for coal and other export bulk commodities." The Westshore terminal on Robert's Bank in Delta had its capacity upgraded in 2010 from 24 to 29 million tons a year.

Environmental Oversight

Legislation has had some impact on reducing the environmental impact of mining in British Columbia. Most important are the land reclamation laws, first passed in the 1960s. Reclamation usually involves re-vegetating landscapes disturbed by mining, restoring natural drainage patterns as far as possible, and returning the topography to something equivalent to its original state. Reclamation has not been total, however. Since the legislation passed, around 45,412 hectares, or 0.05%, of the province's land area has been disturbed by mining for coal and metals. Of that only 42%, or 19,422 hectares have actually been reclaimed.

B.C. mines have an excellent safety record and statistically it has been the safest heavy industry in the province eight of the last ten years. Their environmental record is however less clear, especially following a damning auditor-general's report on the Environmental Assessment Office which oversees the environmental sustainability of major development projects, including mines. The auditor-general accused the EAO of being a rubber stamp for business. It rejected only one of the 219 development proposals it had assessed in the past 15 years.

The EAO's responsibility is to set out environmental protection and mitigation goals for any development project before giving it approval. It is supposed to follow up the development with inspections. For the past 15 years the auditor-general reported that the EAO sets environmental protection goals that use vague and immeasurable language and then fails to undertake any monitoring to see if any of the legally binding environmental goals have been met.

This report may have an effect upon the approval process for the Raven Mine near Buckley Bay which the EAO was in the process of undertaking. While initially the EAO stated that all of the environmental effects from the mine could be mitigated, this was later contradicted by an independent federal review which determined, according to the Globe and Mail that "the project would not only have serious adverse environmental impacts but that they could not be mitigated by the proposed measures." The EAO was in the process of conducting a second environmental approval process on the project when the auditor general's report was released in July 2011. Local residents have primarily expressed concerns over the impact water and sulfuric run-off from the mine would have on shellfish grown in the Buckley Bay area which constitute an important part of the local economy. The project is still in the approvals phase.


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B.C. Technical Research Committee on Reclamation. "Mining in B.C." Accessed June 14, 2012.

"Chinese Interested in Northeast Coal Mine: Bell." Prince George Free Press. March 31, 2011. Accessed June 14, 2012.

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Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. "British Columbia Mineral Exploration and Mining Capabilities Guide." Accessed June 14, 2012.

Mickleburgh, Rod. "Vancouver Island's proposed Raven Coal Mine unpopular with locals." The Globe and Mail. July 10, 2011. Accessed June 14, 2012.

Ministry of Energy and Mines and Responsible for Housing. "British Columbia Historical Coal Production and Value." Last updated May 6, 2009. Accessed June 14, 2012.

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Vancouver Sun Blog Network Staff. "British Columbia coal exports could double with port infrastructure improvements, Bond says." Vancouver Sun. November 8, 2010. Accessed June 14, 2012.