Rolling coal on the rails


The coal question is one that should be on the mind of every western Canadian grain producer, and one that every farm organization should be asking right now. It is a question that every federal, provincial and local politician representing rural ridings should be asking. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know of anyone who is asking it.

Even the Alberta government, whose change in coal policy could result in a massive amount of metallurgical coal being mined from the eastern slopes of the Rockies and destined for export from the West Coast is not asking how rail shipments of this much coal may have an impact on the movement of grains and oilseeds and any other products and goods moved by rail through the Rockies.

The worst part is that when I asked the Alberta government, CN rail and CP rail, they seemed surprised, and then avoided answering the question.

This question stems from the rescinding of the 1976 Alberta Eastern Slopes Coal Policy by the current Alberta government last May. The policy change was done without public consultation and the change effectively opened about 1.4 million hectares of the eastern slopes to coal exploration and mining. It has an impact on not only mountainous areas, but protected wilderness areas and grazing lease lands.

The change ignited the ire not only of environmentalists, but ranchers in the area, and farmers and the public downstream of the mines who depend on rivers flowing out of the eastern slopes for their irrigation and water supplies. When the scope of the policy change became apparent last December there was a huge public outcry, but the government announced the old coal policy would be reinstated. 

In fact, prior to the new policy, a number of exploration permits had already been granted, primarily to Australian coal mining companies seeking high-quality metallurgical coal for export to Asia for use in the production of steel. In a February 8 news conference, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage noted exploration projects were underway for the Aries, Blackstone, Cabin Ridge, Chinook, Elan South and Isolation South proposed mines. The project area for these six mines covers 65,000 ha at the headwaters of the Oldman, Crowsnest and Clearwater Rivers.

According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, as of February 12, 2021, the Alberta government had leased 194,281 ha of lands for coal exploration since rescinding the coal policy last May. The society claims the government’s policy change did not cancel these leases, but merely paused them to allow for public consultations.

As well, two eastern slope mines have already proceeded from exploration to the review process required before beginning operation. The Tent Mountain mine operated from the 1940s until 1983. Its ownership is seeking to reopen and expand this mine to another 750 ha near Coleman, Alta. If approved, it would produce coal for the next 14 years.

The government is also reviewing the Grassy Mountain mine proposal for a new open pit mine in southwestern Alberta which is projected to produce 4.5 million tonnes of processed coal per year for the next 25 years.

If just the Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain projects were to proceed and if mine output met expectations, these mines would produce about 7.75 million tonnes of coal per year, all destined for the West Coast, all to be moved by rail through the Rockies. At 90 tonnes per car that would be over 86,000 additional rail cars a year of coal to be moved through the mountains, roughly two trains per day 365 days a year. And we know winter rail movement is often delayed or diminished due to cold, snow, avalanches or track issues.

Grain producers remember what happened a few years ago when there was a big push to move more oil by rail. Rail service for grain movement declined. And most of the increased movement of oil by rail was south rather than west so there were not near the constraints that the Rockies impose on rail capacity. 

Do we even have the rail capacity to increase coal shipments?

Our rail carriers already move a lot of coal. According to the Coal Association of Canada, our railroads currently move over 30 million tonnes of coal annually, 80 per cent of that through B.C. Therefore, the Tent and Grassy Mountain mines alone would increase the amount of coal moved through the Rockies by roughly 25 per cent. So, I asked CN and CP what percentage of rail capacity is currently being used given the limited track and locomotive power through the Rockies. And how many additional tonnes of coal could be moved to the West Coast without having an impact on movement of other goods.

Here are the replies I received:

Mathieu Gaudreault, senior advisor in media relations at CN, responded: “At CN, we are proud of the accomplishments of our dedicated team of railroaders as their work ensures that our network is running safely and that we keep meeting our customers’ needs.

“In order to stay ahead of the demand, CN has invested over $10 billion since 2018, in tracks, locomotives and railcars, including the purchase of over 2,500 new high-capacity grain hopper cars. These investments benefit our grain customers as well as customers from the other sectors we serve. It is important to remember that the record grain shipments of the last twelve months have come at the same time as CN is shipping very high volumes of many other commodities such as lumber, potash, propane and consumer goods.

“CN works continuously at refining its assessment of anticipated volumes to be moved based on overall crop production and insights gained from maintaining open lines of communications and consultations with stakeholders in the grain supply chain as well as various industry associations and elected officials. Those open lines of communications are key to our success as they allow us to extract accurate and timely forecasts on volumes and industry patterns that are essential to our service planning processes.”