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Expired · 4th December 2009
Ray Grigg
The Raven Underground Coal Project, a joint venture between Compliance Coal Corporation and its Japanese and Korean partners, could extract up to 100 million tonnes of metallurgical coal in the Tsable River watershed near Fanny Bay. This is cold comfort for the environment.

Pride and confidence exude from the developers who could potentially remove from this one mine double the historic quantity of coal removed from Vancouver Island during the heyday of the old coal barons. The proportion is in keeping with the scale of industrialization that has expanded the global economy 15-fold in the last 50 years, and is causing an environmental impact of corresponding proportions. Accordingly, nothing is as simple and innocent as it used to be. And the environmental damage of mining coal cannot be disguised with comfortable assurances, careful marketing and benign-sounding names.

"Compliance" seems like an agreeable company – unless we ask what it is in compliance with. And this "metallurgical" coal is "rare" – qualities that are not necessarily advantageous to the Comox Valley region. The coal is also "clean" – an attribute hiding the fact that this fossil fuel is the dirtiest source of energy on the planet. And placing the coal extraction "underground" implies that the project minimizes pollution – until we realize that the coal will be brought to the surface, washed, stored, transported through communities, then shipped to the other side of the planet to be burned. The 3,100 hectare area will only create a surface "disturbance" on 200 hectares – suggesting that the mountain-levelling practices in West Virginia will not occur here so complaints are unjustified. And, since everyone washes, the "coal washing" seems benign – until we ask about the amount of water used, its source, and how, where and in what condition will it be returned to the Tsable watershed. For perspective on this mining project, we should remember the continuing pollution from nearby Quinsam Coal and the litany of environmental headaches it has created in its watershed.

As the proponents for the Raven project proudly attest, "We're extremely lucky in the fact that [with] this location... we're sitting on the doorstep of all the infrastructure that we need." This comment contains an implicit compliment to the community – with the suggestion that the two are so compatible that denying coal mining would be tantamount to resisting destiny. But, besides roads, railways, shipping ports and a water source, this "infrastructure" also means large coal trucks could be using public highways and dusting families, children and homes with coal dust.

The proponents are also proud to note that the mine would be located six kilometres west of Fanny Bay, over a ridge and in a valley that's away from any sight or sound pollution for nearby residents. But the lesson we are sadly learning on Spaceship Earth is that it has no "away". Every place is "here". Each part is connected by links sometimes too indirect for us to notice. We can't mine coal in one location and take it "away" to be burned. Chinese smog is found in Tofino's air samples. Carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in Tokyo or Seoul affects the weather in Iqaluit and Mogadishu.

And how much carbon dioxide would be added from the potentially 100 million tonnes available to be mined in the Raven project? Assume that high quality coal is composed of 90% carbon, and this carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when the coal is burned. The molecular weight of carbon is 12 and oxygen is 16, so CO2 weighs 12 + (2 x 16) = 44 mass units. Now multiply 90% of 100 tonnes of coal by 44/12, the ratio of the molecular weights of carbon dioxide to carbon. The result is 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 3.3 times the weight of the coal.

In the new global world of environmental realities, we can no longer afford to allow a new coal mine without considering the ethical implications of adding potentially 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to an atmosphere already overloaded with this greenhouse gas. And consider the carbon costs of extracting and shipping the coal long-distances. How will the coal be burned on site? Is it the best fuel for the purpose? Will the carbon be captured and safely sequestered? (Permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide is still a technological oxymoron.) Should anyone be selling coal to a buyer whose pollution standards are less than adequate or if the purchasing country is not cooperating with the international community on constraining greenhouse gas emissions? Should British Columbians be accessories to the environmental "crime" of global warming by mining and selling coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels? In a wholly interconnected global ecology without an "away", does access to a polluting resource such as coal obligate us to mine it and thereby be excused from an ethical responsibility for that coal?

The old simplicities no longer apply in the new world of environmental awareness. In their stead are layered complexities of issues that supersede traditional economic considerations. The mere financial viability of a coal mining project is no longer justification for it to proceed. Given the deepening crisis of global warming and all its ominous effects on climate, oceans, species and food production, should anyone even be mining coal?

As Compliance Coal Corporation considers a mine near Fanny Bay, its most searching consideration should not be financial viability but ethical responsibility.