DONKIN, N.S. – As many governments consider ways to wean industry off coal, Cape Breton is hoping the resurrection of its only underground coal mine could bring hundreds of jobs back to the cash-strapped region.
Kameron Collieries, the company planning to re-open the Donkin mine northeast of Sydney, N.S., will hold a job fair Tuesday in Grande Cache, Alta., hoping to hire former Cape Bretoners left jobless after a coal mine there recently closed.
More than 200 people lost their jobs when Grande Cache Coal halted underground mining production on Christmas Eve, citing the deteriorating global market for coal.
Kevin Saccary, a regional councillor in Cape Breton, said Donkin is big enough to provide much-needed jobs but small enough that it ”certainly isn’t going to have a so-called devastating effect on our world environment.”
“We’re a pretty small dot on a great big map when it comes to that particular operation,” Saccary said.
Saccary said he believes there will be demand for coal from the Donkin mine well into the future even as Canada and major users of the fossil fuel clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions.
China, the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, recently announced it would not approve any new coal mines for the next three years as part of ongoing efforts to battle pollution.
Ontario made headlines in 2014 when it became one of the first jurisdictions in North America to eliminate coal power.
Two of Canada’s biggest coal users — Nova Scotia and Alberta — also have plans to gradually phase out their coal-fired power plants, though not for a number of years. Alberta wants to put an end to coal power by 2030, while Nova Scotia says coal will likely play a role in the province’s electricity system until at least 2042.
It all points to a dying industry, said Catherine Abreu, energy coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
“As the demand declines and the availability remains the same, the economics behind coal will continue to become worse and they’re already pretty bad,” said Abreu, adding that 26 coal mining companies declared bankruptcy in the U.S. in recent years.
“It doesn’t, in my mind, make for very good long-term planning for a province like Nova Scotia to think about opening a coal mine.”
Abreu said she understands the importance of creating jobs in Cape Breton, but believes there are better opportunities in a more sustainable sector.
Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada, insists the industry is still viable and creates good-paying jobs. However, he said governments should focus on developing green technology.
“The fact of the matter is that a lot of economies will not be able to survive without burning coal,” said Campbell, Alberta’s former finance minister.
“I think the challenge that companies and countries should be looking at is how do you lower emissions and build on the technology … to provide reliable power into the future?”
Nova Scotia currently has surface coal mines in Stellarton and Point Aconi. The Donkin mine was acquired by Cline Group in December 2014 after the U.S. mining giant purchased a 75 per cent majority stake in the operation from Glencore Xstrata and a 25 per cent interest from Morien Resources Corp. (TSX:MOX).
No one from Kameron Collieries, a subsidiary of Cline Group, was available for comment Monday.
Saccary, the son of a coal miner who sits on the community liaison committee for the Donkin project, said unemployment in the area hovers around 18 per cent. He said the hope is to bring Cape Bretoners who moved West for work back home and continue the island’s long tradition of coal mining.
“A lot of conversations, whether it be over a beer or a cup of coffee, still go on today about the mines and how many people worked,” he said.
“Nobody can ever recall anyone being unemployed. Back then they figured if you were unemployed, you didn’t want to work.”
— by Melanie Patten in Halifax