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Coal mining could make comeback in Crowsnest Pass

World Coal,

Straddling the border of Alberta and British Columbia, just south of Calgary, the Crowsnest Pass boasts a rich history of coal mining, dating back to opening of the first mine in 1900. Over the course of the 20th Century, all the coal mines on the Alberta side of the Canadian municipality closed, as the companies that operated the mines struggled with fluctuating coal prices, bitter strikes and industrial action, as well as fallout from underground accidents. A single coal mine operates just across the British Columbia border in Sparwood.

All this could be set to change, however, after a Calgary-based company received regulatory approval to begun exploratory drilling.

Altitude Resources Inc. has been granted permission from the Alberta Energy Regulator to drill four to six core holes for the purpose of coal quality analysis. The drilling programme, with an estimated budget of C$ 1.5 million, will begin as early as August or September.

“It’s the first step in a long process of technical work that we need to do,” said Altitude president and CEO Gene Wusaty. “If the coal quality is what we believe it is, then the next step is go out there and try to prove our resource target tonnage by doing a bunch more drilling.”

Exploration agreement

In 2013, Altitude Resources announced the formation of an alliance with Elan Coal Ltd, a privately-owned Canadian coal exploration and development company. The two companies signed an exploration and option agreement, in a deal that gives Altitude the option to earn up to a 51% working interest in 27 Alberta Crown coal lease applications (covering almost 23,000 ha.). The leases are located north of the town of Blairmore, 15 km north of Crowsnest Pass.

Altitude also has the right to conduct exploration activities on all parts of the leases. Last fall, surface samples obtained by the company in a preliminary field assessment indicated the presence of “mid-volatile” coal – a grade of coal ideal for use in steel production. The site’s proximity to a rail line would make it easy for the coal to be transported to West Coast ports and then exported to Asia.

The Elan property has been identified as having a 726 million t exploration target.

Site advantages holds allure for mining companies

A key advantage of the Elan site, other than the close proximity to useful rail links, is that it can draw on the substantial work that has already been done in the area.

Wusaty – the former CEO of Coalspur Mines Ltd, which is currently developing a thermal coal project near Hinton – said: “There’s been a lot of historical data at the site, and, although we need to re-verify the historical data, that’s really useful for steel makers who will be blending this coal.”

Companies including CONSOL, Devon Canada, Granby Mining, CanPac Minerals and Canadian Hunter have all done preliminary work and identified more than 10 coal seams on the properties with surface mining potential.

“About nine different companies have been working in the area – although coal mining hasn’t been carried out for perhaps 40 years. If you look across the border, Teck Coal operates five metallurgical coal projects. All that means this area is a burgeoning region for coal development […] although this might have gone under the radar somewhat,” Wusaty mused.

Wusaty continued to say that work done by those in other fossil fuel industries would be beneficial to his company’s project. For eacmple, the oil and gas industry have also “done a wonderful job of building roads and rail lines in the region, which we are in close proximity to.”

Australian company Riversdale Resources also has its eye on the region’s coal assets. Last year, the Sydney-based company acquired more than 14,100 ha. of coal properties and land assets near the towns of Blairmore and Coleman. It is currently evaluating the potential for an opencast development it says could produce 4 million tpa of metallurgical coal.

“Probably the most important thing when dealing with coal is the fact that you have to have existing infrastructure – rail and port – and you have to have spare capacity on that infrastructure. The reason people are coming back to Alberta, looking for coal, is the fact that we have that infrastructure available,” Wusaty added.

A history of tragedy

Crowsnest Pass is known for tragedy. In 1903 the tip of Turtle Mountain broke loose and decimated part of the village of Frank. Then, in 1914, the Hillcrest mine disaster occurred in the Hillcrest mine, killing almost 200 men.

The area has also suffered from serious river flooding during spring months as ice and snow in the nearby mountains melts. Meanwhile, forest fires periodically sweep through the valley, including one in the summer of 2003 that threatened the entire municipality.

Driving through the pass, it is now possible to see abandoned mines, which stand idle along the roads that link the small towns in Crowsnest pass together. These towns, according to one local, often seem “like ghost towns.”

However, the idle mines visible from the road paint a darker picture of the region’s coal mining prospect than needs be, according to Wusaty. “The mines that you see are from those mines built in close proximity to the rail line, and they were really there to feed the railway. The coal we’re looking at is metallurgical coal for steel making, so it’s a completely different type of coal for a different purpose.”

Regulation and the environment

Some local residents have expressed concern about the development of new coal projects, which have been trumped up by activists as being severely damaging to the local environment. However, Wusaty decried such attempts to paint coal as “dirty”, and explained that the regional authorities keep a tight grip on projects that could have an environmental impact.

“Alberta has a very good regulatory regime – it’s fair,” Wusaty said. “People tend to think of coal as a dirty fuel. But we are very very regulated by the government, and we have a very good environmental record.”

With current estimates of coal reserves standing at 33 billion t, the fuel remains an integral part of the Albertan energy mix. According to Alberta Energy, coal supplies about 54% of the province’s electricity generation.

The responsible development of the province's extensive coal deposits can be ensured through planning and liaison with government, industry and communities to ensure competitive tenure and royalty regimes are attractive to investors, as well as appropriate mining regulations and environmental protection are in place.

Coal in Alberta is generally low in sulfur and therefore burns relatively cleanly compared to many coals mined around the world.  By employing modern, clean coal technology, such as coal gasification, coal liquefaction, CO2 storage and sequestration, new coal projects in the region, such as the Elan site, can significantly limit any environmental impact they may otherwise have.

Utilising Alberta’s reserves is not just environmentally sound, it is also imperative for the region’s continued growth and development. As a spokesperson for Alberta Energy opined: “The coal industry provides benefits to communities through employment opportunities, community infrastructure development, and economic prosperity. Coal is also a source of revenue for Albertans.” New projects in previously mined areas, like Crowsnest Pass, can tap into the vast potential offered by coal. They can reinvigorate old mining communities and prevent others turning into “ghost towns”. One thing is clear: if coal is making a comeback in the Crowsnest Pass, it can only be a good thing. 

Written by Sam Dodson

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