The coal mines of British Columbia are the best in Canada. That’s a bold and perhaps brash statement but nevertheless, few can argue with the fact that B.C.’s coal mines are among the best producers in the country and certainly, no one can challenge the word “best” when it comes to location.
Located in “postcard-like” settings worthy of tourism brochures, most of the mine sites are in, or back-dropped by the famed Rocky Mountains and most of them are also carefully blended with their surroundings to help ensure obscurity.
Naturally, however, producing more than 30 million tonnes of coal in 2012 (a 20-year-old record) can’t go unnoticed because they are, in reality, mines, and mines do create noise, and dust, and to some, a nuisance.
But the one thing that can’t be complained about is that B.C.’s coal mines also accounted for about $5.1 billion of the $7.4 billion in production revenues from all mines in the province last year.
And that’s something that can’t be ignored, and it’s not. In fact, a team of regional geologists from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas (Geological Survey) are located throughout the coal regions of the province monitoring and reporting on the exploration and development of new and existing sites.
Historically, coal mining operations in the province’s southeastern regions near Cranbrook have gained most of the headlines since the 1800s (when the Trans-Canada rail lines opened) because of their big-name owner and production levels (1 billion tonnes of proven and probable reserves at five sites in 2011), but recent developments near Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge in the northeast are now earning recognition thanks to the potential of their resources.
With almost 20 mines and exploration sites already identified, the “Northeast Region” is said by many to hold the future because of its infrastructure; most notably B.C. Hydro’s expanding power grid, and the deep-sea coal handling facilities directly across the province at Prince Rupert.
Last year, for instance, was a record year for coal exploration and activity, due to continued mine development and exploration. Spending more than doubled from 2011 levels to $109.3 million, and as already mentioned, the “Northeast Region” is moving forward thanks to expansion work being carried out adjacent to operating mines, and other exploration projects moving towards opening new mines.
In a recent Provincial Summary of what’s happening throughout the province, including and beyond the “Northeast Region,” five regional geologists (Paul Jago, Jim Britton, Dave Grieve, Jeff Kyba, and Bruce Northcote, plus Bruce Madu, a former RG who is now Director of the Mineral Development Office) collaborated to prepare a 30-page overview of mining and exploration in B.C..
The Summary features the full range of mining activities in British Columbia but for the focus of this article, here’s some of what the geologists had to say about coal and specifically its importance to the province and its economy.
First and foremost, as mentioned earlier, coal accounted for about $5.1 billion of the $7.4 billion in production revenues from all mining in B.C. last year and what’s also interesting is that British Columbia is also Canada’s largest exporter of coal; primarily to major Asian markets, most notably Japan, China and South Korea.
Most coal produced is of metallurgical grade (hard coking) coal and is shipped offshore for steel making, and the Summary forecasts that the demand for coking-quality by foreign manufacturers will remain healthy in the long term.
New interest in thermal coal has also risen as external governments explore clean technologies for power production and diversify their energy production.
Coal is currently produced from 10 mines in three regions of the province. Five mines are located in the historic Southeast Region near Cranbrook, and four in the Northeast part of the province. The tenth mine, the Quinsam thermal coal mine, is located on Vancouver Island.
In the East Kootenay Coalfields (the Southeast Region), there are five large open-pit coal mines operated by Teck Coal Limited in the Elk Valley area of the Region. The Fording River, Greenhills, Line Creek, Elkview and Coal Mountain mines employ more than 3,600 people and combined to produce about 24.2 million tonnes of clean coal last year.
Hard coking coal (HCC) is the predominant product at four of the Elk Valley mines while pulverized coal injection (PCI) coal is produced at the Coal Mountain operation.
Farther north in the Peace River coalfield (the Northeast Region), four open-pit mines are located at Trend, Perry Creek (Wolverine), Brule, and Willow Creek.
Again, like the Elk Valley mines in the south, hard coking coal (HCC) of low-to- medium bituminous rank is the main product, but ultra low-volatile pulverized coal injection (ULV-PCI) is also found at the Brule and Willow Creek mines.
Because of the location of the Peace River coalfield’s mines, coal is shipped directly westward across the province by rail to Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert. A more detailed look at the terminal is featured later in this issue.
Down the coast on Vancouver Island is where the Quinsam thermal coal mine is located near Campbell River. Unlike the nine other coal mines in B.C., Quinsam is underground operation where about 140 miners produced about 365,000 tonnes of clean coal last year.
The island mine supplied coal to local cement plants as well as shipping product to the international energy market.
As mentioned earlier, there has been extensive exploration and development activity throughout the province in recent months and The Summary says that Coalmont Energy Corp. anticipates reopening its Basin thermal coal mine in Southcentral B.C. sometime this year.
The mine has been under care and maintenance since 2007, but a proposed open-pit area has been prepared for mining, oxidized coal has been stockpiled, and a road has been upgraded to connect with the nearby Coquihalla Highway.
Once permit amendments have been approved, coal production at the Basin mine is expected to increase to 500,000 tonnes per year.
With 10 operating coal mines and one in the final permitting stage, British Columbia is well positioned to maintain its status as Canada’s largest exporter of coal, but as The Summary says, exploring for new coal reserves is always on going.
In fact, the provincial Environmental Assessment Office reports that by the end of last year, 28 mine proposals were in the process, with two currently under review and 26 at the pre-application stage.
Eleven of the 28 proposals are for coal-mining operations.
While it’s encouraging to see such interest in coal mining and future developments, it’s even more reassuring to witness the growth and expansion of port facilities designed for the export of the province’s coal to foreign markets.
The Westshore Terminals coal port in Delta, for example, which services the Elkview and Crownest coalfields in the “Southeast Region,” recently showed that it’s confident in B.C.’s coal-mining industry by completing Phase 2 of an ongoing equipment upgrade.
Figures from the B.C. Government’s “Coal Industry Overview 2012” show that the annual capacity at Westshore Terminals’ Delta port has increased from 23.5 to 33 million tonnes in the past five years.
Also servicing the “Southeastern Region” coalfields, as well as the Quinsam mine on Vancouver Island, the Overview says that Neptune Bulk Terminals in North Vancouver recently received approval from Port Metro Vancouver to increase its coal export capacity from nine million to 18 million tonnes.
The government document also says that coal from mines in the “Northeast Region” that are transported by rail to the Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert will also be handled quicker and more efficiently thanks to plans to increase annual capacity from 12 to 24 million tonnes. This will accommodate the anticipated increase in coking and PCI coal from the Peace River coalfield.
It’s also reported that Fraser River Docks in Surrey has also applied to Port Metro Vancouver for approvals to develop part of its facility to transfer thermal coal from Wyoming.
Moving the coal would involve loading it onto barges for transport to the deep-water port on Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia, and from there be loaded onto ocean-going ships.
Regardless of where coal is mined in British Columbia or how it’s moved within or out of the province, B.C. coal is the best and as stated at the outset, its mines are the best too!