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The small Cape Breton community of Donkin, N.S. The Nova Scotia government is seeking proposals for the development of the nearby Donkin coal mine, The coal seam, several kilometres out under the ocean, is estimated to hold 300 million tonnes of coal, which is more than the total mined in Cape Breton's history. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/ANDREW VAUGHAN/CP)
The small Cape Breton community of Donkin, N.S. The Nova Scotia government is seeking proposals for the development of the nearby Donkin coal mine, The coal seam, several kilometres out under the ocean, is estimated to hold 300 million tonnes of coal, which is more than the total mined in Cape Breton's history. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/ANDREW VAUGHAN/CP)

Cape Breton's undersea coal field a vein to energy wealth Add to ...

French explorer Nicholas Deny discovered abundant coal (“a mountain of very good coal four leagues up the river”) on Cape Breton Island in 1672. Within a few years, miners were prying coal from rock outcroppings along the coast with crowbars. Although Cape Breton’s fabled coal mines closed a decade ago, ostensibly forever, the chances are good that the island will soon be back in the coal business – mining a huge and distinctly Canadian energy source: the undersea Sydney coal field.

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Cape Breton University (CBU) president H. John Harker, an energy authority, describes this energy resource as “a vast deposit [150 billion tonnes]of quality coal under the waters of the North Atlantic extending from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and Labrador.” Swing westward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and undersea coal deposits more than double, to 350 billion tonnes.

Cape Breton’s undersea coal field is so big that Mr. Harker thinks Canada, Britain and the United States should develop it strategically, recalling the Second World War alliance (Roosevelt, Churchill and Mackenzie King) that won the Battle of the Atlantic. “Are the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Britain and the Prime Minister of Canada the men their predecessors were?” Mr. Harker asked rhetorically in an opinion piece in the Halifax Chronicle Herald in 2010. “Will they see in the Sydney coal field what their predecessors saw in the waters of the North Atlantic, a battleground they could and must win on?”

Cape Breton miners went under the sea for coal as early as 1877 (eventually digging tunnels more than three miles in length). As Mr. Harker now envisages it, the enterprise would be radically different – a three-country pursuit of energy independence through clean coal. The technology to mine undersea coal already exists (as the Chunnel, an undersea burrow, proves). And the technology to cleanse it already exists. In theory at least, the process would be environmentally benign. The coal would be burned in situ; it would never leave the mine. “You would leave the ash behind,” Mr. Harker says, “where once there was coal.”

Called underground coal gasification (UCG), the technology captures the environmental contaminants in coal (sulphur, tar, mercury) and carbon dioxide, too – and buries them. In the process of combustion, the coal turns into syngas, one-half natural gas, one-half hydrogen, the cleanest fuel source, Mr. Harker notes, in the world. Syngas would be produced, he says, “in huge quantities.”

“The economics of UCG are favourable at today’s energy prices,” Mr. Harker says. “A mere 50 million tonnes of undersea coal will produce $250-million worth of clean energy annually for 25 years. And there are at least 250 blocks of 50 million tonnes in the Sydney coal field.” (Canada consumes 50 million tonnes of coal a year.)

The mining of Cape Breton’s undersea coal would require a huge capital investment by private industry, making a trilateral partnership a pragmatic option. But national participation would not be absolutely essential. When CBU opened a new energy research centre in November, the very first visitors were senior executives from China’s coal industry – anxious to check out the university’s research on undersea coal.

As it happens, Nova Scotia has a working relationship with China’s northern-most province, Heilongjiang (known as Hei by the Chinese), which also has a working relationship with coal-rich Alberta. If Canada, the U.S. and Britain aren’t interested, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Hei could proceed without them.

Cape Breton University opened its Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment in November (with significant federal and provincial financing). Named for CBU chancellor Annette Verschuren, the girl from rural Cape Breton who grew up to run Home Depot Canada Inc. for almost 10 years, the centre has two research mandates, one past and one future: pristine restoration of Cape Breton’s old industrial coal mine sites and development of Atlantic Canada’s energy alternatives (undersea coal among them).

Mr. Harker correctly calls the North Atlantic “an ocean of destiny,” and not only for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia or Atlantic Canada. Rather, for Canada and the world. The Sydney coal field could turn Atlantic Canada into yet another global energy superpower.

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