Author: Jimmy Thomson, Canadian Geographic
Publish Date: Oct 10, 2013 Last Update: Sep 20, 2018
In its natural state, coal exists in seams underground, and must be mined. To get at coal deep underground, coal mines plunge over a kilometre into the Earth while shallow coal seams are strip mined.
Mining underground seams can be done in several ways, depending on the landscape and the characteristics of the coal seam, including depth, length, continuity and structure. Strip mines can be located right on the surface or on top of mountains; in this case, layers of soil and vegetation are “stripped” away to get at more shallow coal seams.
Coal is emitting about twice the CO2 of natural gas per unit of energy produced. Compared to hydro power, it releases about 250 times as much CO2. It also produces acid rain-causing nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, mercury and other toxins, as well as the sooty particulates responsible for 18th-century London’s ubiquitous grime.
A “clean coal” technology, which removes much of the CO2, particulates and nitrogen oxides, does exist, but the cost-effectiveness of CO2 removal is still disputed. Coal can also be converted to synthetic methane (syngas) and burned with less particulate emissions, yet this process emits higher levels of greenhouse gases on a lifecycle basis than simply burning the coal. Syngas has not been adopted in Canada outside of the oil sands.
Canadian production of coal remained steady at 61 million tonnes in 2017. Nova Scotia’s primary source of electricity generation is coal, but it also produces electricity from oil, natural gas, hydro, wind, and biomass. Coal-fired generation is scheduled to be gradually phased out by 2030 under Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.
A number of Canadian communities, like Sydney, N.S., were built around coal mining, and collapsed when the mines closed; serious environmental problems left behind by the coal industry, have only recently been addressed. The Sydney Tar Ponds, for example, were created by decades of runoff from a nearby coal-fired steel mill. Decades of work and hundreds of millions were spent to clean up the site.
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