Mining coal has always been a tough endeavour. Underground miners work in the dust and dark with the threat of deadly explosion. Surface miners must be ever alert to the hazards of large equipment. And in today’s markets the industry has become even less attractive.
As Chinese demand for steel has softened, the price of metallurgical coal has plummeted. Over the past year it has slid to roughly US$75 to US$80 per tonne, a six-year low. Some producers were commanding as much as US$300/tonne in 2011.
High cost coal producers are being forced to close their doors. Several have announced recent suspensions in Australia. Chinese authorities have anticipate the closing of 1,000 more coal mines this year on top of the 1,300 that were shuttered a year ago.
Low prices forced Teck Coal to curtail production in British Columbia by closing all six of its steelmaking coal mines for three weeks in the summer of 2015.
The outlook for thermal coal is shrinking, too. The world is heeding the growing chorus of environmentalists calling for the banning of fossil fuels. Chief among such fuels is coal burned for electricity, producing greenhouse gases, particulates and releasing mercury.
The United States has begun a three-year period during which it will issue no new coal mining leases on federal land. The move comes on the heels of President Obama’s strategic plans to shift the country towards a clean energy economy.
A handful of new cases of black lung have been diagnosed among coal miners in Queensland, Australia. The disease seemed to have been on the wane in recent years thanks to better ventilation and dust control. Evidently it is still a threat to miners.
And finally, the last working colliery on Vancouver Island – Quinsam Coal – closed its doors perhaps permanently earlier this month. The mine had produced high quality thermal coal for the BC cement industry and for international customers around the Pacific Rim. Hillsborough Resources, owner of the Quinsam mine, blamed the “prolonged and steep decline” in metallurgical coal prices for its decision. Development at the Echo Hill coal property was also halted.
Thus ends coal mining on Vancouver Island, probably not to resume in our lifetimes.