While other Canadian provinces phase out coal, Nova Scotia is defiantly preparing to open its first coal mine since the last one closed in 2001 - this one under the ownership of a secretive American billionaire with ties to the Carlyle Group and Jeb Bush.

Chris Cline, who's been described as a "billionaire coal baron" by Bloomberg News, owns 100 per cent of the once dormant Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton. Cline - who recently contributed $1-million to Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s campaign - has pitted the economy against the environment on the isolated Nova Scotia island with his plans to open Donkin.

“Cape Bretoners today are very protective of that project and want it to go ahead,” declares Adrian White, the executive director of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce.”

“It’s not as if this mine is going to last forever and pollute the world, but it is going to be part of the energy equation for the short to medium term,” says White who is a former vice-president of the now-defunct crown corporation, the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO), which originally dug the mine.

In 2015, Forbes ranked Cline as the 392th wealthiest person in the U.S. with a net worth of $1.7 billion. According to an article the Wisconsin Resource Council published, he owns a 150-acre estate in Beckley, West Virginia and a 34,000 square foot ocean-front mansion in Palm Beach, Florida.

His 164-foot luxury yacht named Mine Games boasts a two-person submarine. Cline, who is very private, briefly fell into the spotlight when he dated the ex-wife of Tiger Woods for a year until mid-2014.

A video tour of Cline's yacht. Source: YouTube

But that’s not the only reason Cline’s attracted attention. The Wisconsin Resource Council cites Devon Cupery, a producer of the Al Jazeera documentary, Wisconsin’s Mining Standoff, who says Cline’s coal mines in West Virginia and Illinois have been cited for over 8,000 federal safety violations since 2004.

“Of the 8,000, over 2,300 were ‘significant and substantial’ violations with the potential for injury, illness and death.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign links Cline’s company Foresight Energy LP to the investment bank, arms dealer and global asset management firm, the Carlyle Group. The group owns a portion of Foresight.

The Guardian UK newspaper reported in 2011 that the Carlyle Group had signed up a number of former politicians, including the first President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, and former English primer minister John Major.

The paper reported that the group used their contacts and influence to promote the group and for “smoothing the path for Carlyle’s defence firms.

Also, among the firm’s multi-million-dollar investors were members of the Osama bin Laden family, which the Guardian found particularly curious at a time when it described the company as the “thread which indirectly links American military policy in Afghanistan to the personal financial fortunes of its celebrity employees.”

A Bloomberg Business Magazine profile of Cline reported that after teachers at his children’s school showed the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth, Cline requested they provide literature “suggesting other potential causes for climate change, such as sunspots or the earth wobbling on its axis.”

Why so much interest from Wisconsin public democracy groups? Propublica reports that in 2011 and 2012 to try and influence a state law on mining a Cline Group subsidiary gave $700,000 to a Conservative non-profit to have it and another one lobby on its behalf.

In a labour market where unemployment currently sits at 14 per cent, news of the mine is welcome. But outside of Cape Breton, Elizabeth May and others are calling for the mine to remain closed.

May, leader of the federal Green Party and a former resident of Cape Breton, is dead set against the mine. “I think it’s an extremely irresponsible decision should the Nova Scotia government decide to go ahead with the Donkin Mine,” May says.

“I am entirely aware of the concerns about employment issues on Cape Breton, but that doesn’t trump the obligations we all have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first and obvious thing for Canada to do, one of the key steps we need to make as a nation is to stop burning coal for electricity.”

May notes that the International Panel on Climate Change has identified Nova Scotia as second only to New Orleans at risk for sea level rise. She cites the land link of the low-lying Tantramar Marsh between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, saying to lose that to rising waters would be far more costly than the investments being made in the mine.

Catherine Abreu, managing coordinator of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, opines that the opening of the mine doesn’t represent sound, long-term planning for Nova Scotia.

“I’m really sympathetic to the desire to create jobs in a part of Cape Breton that has been job-starved for a long time, and I also understand the desire to bring Cape Bretoners home. I would really love to see that happen as well.

“But I think we can agree that we don’t want to create just any jobs for those people. We want to create long-term jobs in modern industries. I think we can do better for them. And really coal is a dying industry and one totally incompatible with us really committing to addressing climate change.”

In the United States the total number of operating coal mines in the U.S. has reached the lowest point since 1923, one of the earliest years on record, according to the website, Mining.com. At least 270 operations were either halted or shut down in 2013.

In Canada, mines don't appear to be faring much better, with Ontario having already phased out coal production and Alberta following suit. At the time of writing the Grande Cache Coal Mine in northern Alberta is shutting down, throwing 170 people out of work.

Nova Scotia contends that mine won't impact greenhouse gas targets

Such arguments hold no sway with Sydney’s White, nor Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal MP for Cape-Breton Canso.

White calls the mine a needed boost to the economy and says the region has struggled ever since the closure of steel plants and coal mines a decade and a half ago. He estimates that over the lifetime of the mine, believed to be around 30 years, it will add up to a few hundred million dollars in goods, services and wages for people in the community.

Cuzner says Cape Breton has had a number of good years because of workers migrating to Alberta to work in the tar sands. But that’s changed. He used to go to the airport and see 10 rows of cars parked, left while their owners were working in Western Canada or other parts of the world. Last Thursday, the MP easily parked in the second row.

“In my 15 years [as an MP] I don’t know if I’ve felt it as tough as it is right now. The community has a degree of nervousness that I haven’t seen since we closed the coal mine. There’s a great deal of excitement around the opening of the Donkin Mine.”

Supporting the mine puts Cuzner at odds with the policies of his own party. In December 2015, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna helped steer the Paris climate change summit to a goal of trying to hold the rise in greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Cuzner is unrepentant. “In the perfect world, we all have solar power and get our electricity from windmills, but as a society we’re still quite a way away from that.

“I think we can continue to work toward developing sustainable technology, but again the fact is there remains a global demand for coal and if it’s not supplied by the people mining in Donkin, then they’ll find their coal somewhere else. I’m comfortable with it and supportive of the initiative.

And in fact the mine may very well return Cape Breton’s workers back to the island. The Kameron Collieries Halifax-based subsidiary of his massive Cline Group recently held a job fair in Grande Cache, Alberta for the Nova Scotia mine. There, Kameron is trying to attract Cape Breton miners home from a mine that’s closing.

Nova Scotia contends that the mine won't add to its provincial emissions targets. The province says it's placed hard caps on emissions from the electricity sector that will cut greenhouse gases from electricity by more than half by 2030 and that it has also legislated targets of 25 per cent electricity generation from renewables in 2015, and 40 per cent by 2020.

"The decision to open a coal mine in Nova Scotia, or any other large industry, is a business decision," says Heather Fairbairn, a media relations advisor with the provincial environment department. She adds that the environmental assessment approval issued to the company requires them to prepare and put in place a greenhouse gas management plan to reduce the emissions resulting from the extraction process.

"With the appropriate greenhouse gas measures in place, there is room within our current targets for the project," Fairbairn asserts.

Nova Scotia Power agreed to test the coal for electricity generation

DEVCO spent nearly $100-million exploring and developing the Donkin block by the time it made the decision to shut the mine, according to an article in the Canadian Mining Journal. While the mine may contain over half a billion metric tonnes of high-grade metallurgical and thermal coal, the story noted that it wasn’t enough to prompt a move from development to production.

Roughly 70 per cent of the coal is expected to go toward making coke, which in turn will be used to make steel. But Nova Scotia Power has also agreed to test some of the coal for electricity generation.

According to White, N.S. Power currently sources its coal from South America, so having a source in Cape Breton would make for a much more economic energy source.

But the Ecology Action Centre’s Abreu contends that the Donkin coal is very high in sulpher so the fuel wouldn’t meet the environmental standards for emission requirements. Burning Donkin coal in the province would require N.S. Power to install scrubbers on their existing facilities - but that might be just what Chris Cline is counting on.

That’s exactly how Cline earned his billions in the first place.

In 2002 Cline spent $300-million on mining rights, land and equipment in Illinois, buying up coal others were abandoning because it contained too much acid-rain producing sulphur to be burned in most power plants, according to a feature in Bloomberg Business Magazine.

He was betting that the government would enact legislation to require power plants to add scrubbers to cut emissions, making the sulphur-laden coal attractive again. He was right, as Bloomberg Business Magazine documented, noting that the value of the Illinois coal quintupled over the next five years, helping Cline raise $1.2 billion.

Back in Cape Breton, White says the mine’s new owners aren’t naive and understand what’s going on with climate change. White contends that coal-fired generation will reduce as more renewables come on in the province.

“That’s probably the honourable thing to do, to pitch in here in Nova Scotia, to do our part in contributing to global warming,” White says. “But the fact of the matter is, coal is part of our energy generation plan and will be for the short-to-medium term, so that’s the way it’s going to go.”

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