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.
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.”
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