As Canada phases out coal at home, it continues exporting it overseas, pushing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions even higher and making tons of money in the process. In this series, Canada’s National Observer digs into efforts to end coal, barriers in the way and solutions needed to get off fossil fuels for good.

Coal is the cheapest, dirtiest fossil fuel in the world. Used for heat, power and steelmaking, it releases more carbon dioxide when burned than oil or gas. And in 2022, worldwide coal consumption reached a high despite a promise at the 2021 United Nations climate conference to “phase down” its use.

Countries are shutting down coal-fired power plants and making rules about transitioning off the fossil fuel for electricity. Canada has legislation that says all energy produced by thermal coal, which is burned for electricity, will be phased out by 2030. However, there’s another classification of coal the Canadian government has no plans to phase out: metallurgical coal, or the type used for steelmaking.

So, what’s the difference between the two? And why should we care about Canada’s continued export of coal? Canada’s National Observer is examining the role of the fossil fuel in our economy and abroad as part of a limited series. Here is some background to prepare you before we dig in.

What is metallurgical coal?

According to the World Coal Association, 70 per cent of the steel produced uses metallurgical coal. It is used to produce coke, which is fed into extremely hot furnaces to turn iron ore into steel. Coke is a preferred fuel source because it burns cleaner than coal, which helps keep the steel free of impurities.

Just over half of the coal produced in Canada in 2019 was metallurgical coal. In British Columbia, over 95 per cent of coal currently produced is metallurgical.

The price of metallurgical coal shot up in 2021, prompting the reopening of Nova Scotia’s Donkin mine in 2022, Canada’s only underground coal mine, which has since closed again.

We are examining the role of coal in our economy and abroad as part of a limited series. This explainer looks at the difference between metallurgical and thermal coal and breaks down important export data.

The makeup of thermal and metallurgical coal differs. BHP, a major Australian mining company, states on its website: “Metallurgical coal is a black sedimentary rock found within the Earth's crust. It is higher in carbon, typically low in moisture and is an essential part of the steelmaking process.”

Steel is used heavily by the construction industry for buildings and other infrastructure projects. Photo by Luca Upper / Unsplash

About 11 per cent of global carbon emissions come from the steelmaking industry, according to Steel Watch.

And while Canada has clear targets to phase out thermal coal, there is no legislation to end the production or use of metallurgical coal. There is a notable operation in Canada — the ArcelorMittal plant in Hamilton, Ont. — on track to eliminate coal from its steelmaking process by 2028.

What is thermal coal?

Thermal coal is burned to create steam, which generates electricity. Of the 47.3 million tonnes of coal Canada produced in 2022, 41 per cent was thermal and 59 per cent was metallurgical, according to Natural Resources Canada. Approximately 85 per cent of coal mined in Canada comes from B.C. and Alberta, and around 15 per cent from Saskatchewan.

The thermal coal burned at home goes to 12 coal power stations in operation across Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The last coal-fired plant in Alberta is set to close next year and transition to natural gas — also a planet-warming fossil fuel, which the International Energy Agency says will have to be scaled back sharply after 2025.

In 2016, the federal government announced plans to phase out unabated coal-fired electricity by 2030, which means any coal plant operating without carbon capture and storage technology will have to shut down. The only operation meeting that requirement is the Boundary Dam 3 coal power plant in Saskatchewan.

Also by the end of the decade, the federal government will phase out thermal coal exports. However, campaigns from environmental groups are pressing the feds to act sooner, noting more than 15 million tonnes of thermal coal passed through the Port of Vancouver in 2021, 55 per cent more than in 2020. In 2022, which is the most recent year the Port has data available, the amount ballooned even more to over 16 million tonnes.

In dollars, Canada exported nearly $2 billion worth of thermal coal in 2022. The country exported even more metallurgical coal that year: over $12 billion, according to numbers from Statistics Canada obtained by Canada’s National Observer.

​Even if Canada cuts back on burning coal at home, six more years of thermal coal exports will have dire consequences for the environment, writes Ecojustice lawyer Fraser Thomson.

“Canada is contributing to the global climate emergency by continuing to export millions of tonnes of coal through its ports each year to be burned abroad,” writes Thomson.

How does coal affect the environment?

Coal makes up around a third of the world’s carbon emissions. The fossil fuel is responsible for more than 0.3 C of the 1 C increase in global average temperatures, a jump that has caused extreme changes in weather, leading to the death of millions of people and hurting biodiversity on land and in the ocean.

There are impacts beyond emissions, too. Coal mining can pollute waterways; in Alberta, rivers and streams have been “heavily contaminated” by coal mines. According to the federal government, the industry is also one of the leading sources of air pollution in Canada: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury leach into the atmosphere. These chemicals cause everything from acid rain to environmental damage and can lead to health issues like asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

— With files from John Woodside and David McKie

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
January 24, 2024, 12:00 pm

This story has been updated to include more recent coal production figures from Natural Resources Canada.

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Metallurgical coal mining proposed by Australia's mining magnate, Gina Rinehart and her renamed Northback company, would be disastrous for precious and rapidly dwindling water supply and water quality in southern Alberta and beyond. As so-called "clean" coal, the filthy fines would be washed at source, selenium and other toxic substances will pollute waterways for centuries, and the project was already disallowed in a previous application under its previous name, Benga. The coal will be exported to be combusted in other countries, mostly in Asia, continuing to add to carbon and other emissions. Mines like these - be they for metallurgical coal, lithium, or other minerals - are not going to save the world. Yet this mine and others are being justified as being essential to the so-called "green/clean" energy transition. This transition is an excellent opportunity for a growth, growth, growth economy - surely the last thing this world needs - but the unintended consequences of this transition will simply compound the ecological crisis in which we find ourselves and devastate the lives and livelihoods of people who love the beauty, the wholeness and richness of the land, something its major boosters, most environmental organizations, usually from their urban perches, simply choose to ignore or accept as collateral damage.

Agree wholeheartedly. Smith will do anything to promote fossil-fuels. Even approve the illegal recent application by Northback on Graaey Mountain.
Water pollution, water shortages are of little concern to Premier Smith, in spite of a large majority of Albertans objecting to any coal mining in the Eastern Slopes

Nobody wants a coal (or lithium, copper, iron ore, aluminum, or other metal) mine in their neighbourhood. Everybody cares about pristine environments and clean water, and food.

But it's nonsensical to eliminate practically every material used in the critic's instruments of communication and ability to eat, be sheltered, earn a living, govern and be governed, and move when making sweeping generalizations about living on a finite planet without doing the hard work to offer reasonable alternatives, substitutions and solutions.

Banning everything is not an answer.

Thank you for this informative article. I would like to know more about how steel can be made without coal. And is it viable? Here's a CBC article about a Swedish venture:

Excellent and informed comment!

I'm not able to provide links from my phone, but MIT's Boston Metals is busy taking their lab work with electrolysis and electric arc tech in furnaces up to commercial scale in the real world.

Electric arc furnaces are pretty common today for converting scrap steel into molten steel that can be made into products like railway tracks, rebar and steel beams and girders. Steel, like aluminum and lithium, are totally recyclable.

Electrolysis (basically running a huge electruc current through a container of metal ore) can be used for making new steel alloys.

Neither process requires coal / coke. Boston Metals' electrolysis process has obtained very high temps in the lab and made stainless steel without coal or limestone.

One Swedish company melts steel by burning hydrogen, and their technology has garnered the attention of German industry, which in turn is setting up contracts with NFLD wind power outfits that will convert hydrogen to liquid ammonia for overseas shipping, presumably using wind and H-fired power in the conversion process. Thw nitrogen will be seoarated from the hydrogen at the destination, each following their own way in industrial processing.

All of the above is possible with zero or low emission electricity, including making hydrogen from wind, solar and geothermal power.

There is also mounting interest in applying more green electricity to the cement industry, which can't be done soon enough, in my view.

It is absolutely possible for Canada to use its enormous clean power potential to reshore steelmaking (and other processes) and build a domestic green steel industry.

Not a real disagreement, but steel does require a small amount of carbon (around 1% by wt) as a 'hardener' - so even electro or hydrogen powered steel making will require some metallurgical coal.
Also, steel is a sink - a lot goes into potable-water pipes, railways, bridges, buildings and other long term infrastructure, so we will need to keep mining iron and coal for some time yet before we get to an equilibrium level in terms of new use needs vs. recycled supply.

There is a presentation somewhere on YouTube with Canadian-born MIT prof Dr. Donald Sadoway describing their electro-metallurgical process to make stainless steel in the lab. He specifically outlined the steps that eliminated coke (i.e. coal) and limestone from the process.

Perhaps carbon was added somewhere else in the chain, but I don't recall it in his presentation. His main point was that replacing coal with a large electrical current passed through the metal (electric arc furnaces are a different matter) avoided burning coal or using the byproduct coke. Ditto limestone.

Sadoway formed two companies out of that research lab: Ambri, which focuses on liquid metal batteries for grid storage using very common metals not usually found in lithium batteries; and Boston Metal which specializes in green steel using electrolysis. Ambri batteries were just entering the commercial market last time I checked. However, they have some very stiff competition from Form Energy, another MIT baby that uses iron-air tech and has longer duration storage.

Time to check the progress on Boston Metals?

Steel is a sink, but it is also perfectly recyclable. The construction industry now commonly separates steel from their waste streams and redirects it to the scrap steel stream where it is melted down to make more steel products. This is a viable industry today; it has value and therein very little steel now ends up in landfills.

In big projects, contractors typically break up old concrete, separate the rebar and run the old concrete through a crusher and use the crushed concrete as aggregate for new concrete or road base.

Hey Patricia. Stay tuned, our next piece in this limited series digs into this very question!

This is an excellent half article.

Presumably Part 2 will focus on the required alternatives to using anthracite coal to make an essential material like steel.

In fact, CNO could, if it tried, do an extended series on climate adaptation and its benefits and costs.

So they need the coal to make coke. Couldn't they just use pepsi instead?

They tried Orange Crush in Alberta once. Didn't work out.

I do think coal electricity generation is headed for the exit by itself; a carbon price or regulation are just the icing on the "renewables are better and cheaper" cake. But that's a lot of metallurgical coal; I didn't realize steel made up quite that much of the world's carbon emissions. Clearly we need to fast forward the shift to other ways of making steel.