The calls from COP26 were clear: the world must stop burning coal if it hopes to avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperature.So why does British Columbia continue to be Canada’s leader in the extraction and export of coal? The answer: Global demand for steel continues to soar.
95% of British Columbia’s coal is metallurgical rather than thermal. Thermal coal is used to generate steam which produces electricity. Metallurgical coal, or coking coal, is mined to produce the carbon used in steelmaking and is shipped primarily to Asian countries for this purpose.
In developing countries such as China and India, where infrastructure like railways, roads, bridges and buildings are built en masse, steel is essential for continued growth.
But just because British Columbia doesn’t produce and export thermal coal – which is almost universally maligned for its high emissions – doesn’t mean the province isn’t contributing a massive amount of carbon emissions.
According to research organization Net Zero Steel, an estimated seven percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from steel manufacturing.
How is BC coal used?
To make steel, oxygen must be removed from iron oxide. This requires a fuel called coke, which is made by heating metallurgical coal in a blast furnace. By far the most carbon intensive aspects of steelmaking are the reduction of iron ore and the smelting process that follows.
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According to the 2020 overview of the province’s coal industry, production volumes are expected to be 25.1 million tonnes in 2020, up from 30 million tonnes in 2019.
Coal is by far the most valuable mined product in British Columbia, with sales of nearly $ 4 billion.
In 2019, British Columbia coal accounted for 48% of all Canadian production. The provincial government says coal production employs thousands of people, primarily in the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia and the northeastern region of the province near Tumbler Ridge.
Steel production can be cleaner
Experts say there are a number of ways to reduce emissions from steelmaking, but perhaps the most promising possibility is the idea of completely removing metallurgical coal from the process.
Clean hydrogen can be used instead to extract oxygen from iron ore.
“It’s entirely possible that from, say, five years from now, all new steel plants will be using some version of this technology,” said Chris Bataille, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and lead author of The Group. United Nations intergovernmental climate experts. Switch.
“It’s not even a question of how much coal there is. … Ultimately, if we are serious about decarbonizing the steel industry, there will be no demand for coal. “
The green steel industry is most advanced in Sweden, where two factories, Hybrit and H2 Green Steel, say they are only a few years away from commercial production.
Bataille, who has been studying ways to eliminate emissions from heavy industries for five years, believes that metallurgical coal has a maximum of 30 years of usefulness in steel production.
But not everyone agrees.
The case for more coal
If the shift to green steel production were to happen quickly, it would undoubtedly render British Columbia’s coal industry obsolete. But the transition will take time.
Mining giant Teck Resources, which manages the four coal mines in southeastern British Columbia, says three of them have reserves that could last for more than 28 years – Greenhills mining contains enough to support an additional 47 years of operation.
Teck says it made 35% of its nearly $ 4 billion revenue in 2020 from coal mining.
“Steel and iron and steel are needed to build the infrastructure necessary for the transition to a low-carbon economy, including renewable energy systems,” the company wrote in a statement.
“Our analysis suggests that in several climate scenarios… the demand for maritime steel coal will remain robust until 2050.”
Shortage of clean hydrogen
While it may seem obvious that the industry powers are looking to continue to generate profits from coal, there are other obstacles in the way of green steel as well.
There is the problem of a shortage of clean hydrogen. Bataille says it’s because there isn’t a large demand yet and manufacturers will eventually produce theirs.
But John Steen, associate professor and leading global mining researcher at UBC, argues that clean hydrogen is much more expensive than hydrogen produced using natural gas. He fears that production will simply keep pace with the scale of renewable energy needs.
“Hydrogen is not a quick fix, so we’re caught in a real trap,” said Steen, who has collaborated on research with mining companies like Teck and Rio Tinto.
He believes the idea of large-scale coal-free steel production is still decades away due to the demand for steel, the slow adoption of green practices and these hydrogen supply shortages. .
“The simple answer is, ‘Forbidden all coal. And what would you replace it with? Where are these billions of tonnes of steel going to come from? ” he said.
Steen points out that even the infrastructure needed to reduce emissions, like wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars, all require steel. And if low-lying cities fall victim to rising sea levels, he says we’ll need even more steel to defend those cities or move them.
And so we end up with the same conundrum that we face in almost every debate about natural resources and climate solutions.
In the production of clean hydrogen steel, technology is available to move away from high emission practices. But, as always, the big obstacle is the transition and the aggressiveness with which it is pursued.
LISTEN | Journalist Jeremy Allingham talks about the challenges British Columbia faces moving away from coal: