Heather Exner-Pirot is the director of energy, natural resources and environment at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Teck, the Canadian miner, can now focus on its core base metals business, in particular copper, as it bets on strong returns in the years to come. Swiss commodities giant Glencore can build up its coal empire, adding the steelmaking coal assets to its vast thermal coal trade.
But the deal also reveals how coal has its own set of rules. Despite how profitable and strategic Teck’s coal resources are, they will soon come under foreign control. It is hard to imagine this unfolding the same way for any other commodity.
Coal is an essential, ubiquitous material. It is the workhorse of the global power sector, accounting for more than a third of global electricity generation. And it is indispensable in steelmaking. The burning of coke, a coal-based fuel, produces the carbon monoxide needed to convert iron ore into a liquid, alongside high temperatures. The majority of steel in the world is made with coking coal, also known as metallurgical coal.
Owing to its carbon intensity, it has a terrible reputation. Investors and shareholders, not to mention Western governments, shun it. Teck’s intention to spin off its coal business is linked to shareholder desires to see a decoupling of its metals and coal businesses out of environmental concerns, which have weighed on its valuation. Even as it pursues Teck’s coal assets, Glencore is doing the same; it plans to separate its metals and coal businesses within two years and sought Teck’s premium steelmaking coal to make its other coal holdings more palatable.
But shareholder distaste for coal is increasingly divorced from its economics. Coal is still highly profitable. Last year witnessed high prices and record demand, in part owing to the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both Teck and Glencore benefited greatly. Teck earned record profits of $4.9-billion, with coal accounting for 75 per cent of that. Glencore’s core profit rose 60 per cent to a record US$34.1-billion, more than half of which came from coal production.
Teck’s steelmaking coal assets in B.C.’s Elk Valley are world-class – high-quality, with decades of reserves and a low carbon intensity relative to other deposits. Glencore’s deal for them will see it partnering with Japan’s Nippon Steel NPSCY and South Korea’s PISCO PKX-N, who will take minority stakes. The fact that the deal includes two of the world’s biggest steel producers is evidence that these coal assets have long-term customers. This deal is not about Teck unloading a bad asset; it is about removing the ESG noose around its neck.
That’s poor justification for letting such vital assets end up in foreign hands. Yet the federal government will likely let the deal happen.
Federal scrutiny of foreign investment and takeovers in our domestic mining sector has grown of late, as the need for friendly sources of critical minerals grows. As The Globe and Mail reported last month, Canadian firms have mainly been the targets, rather than pursuers, of acquisitions in the sector in the past decade. Canada has toughened the Investment Canada Act as a result.
While the Teck-Glencore deal will raise similar concerns, it has been designed to skirt them. Teck’s news release could have been written by Ottawa. It aligns with the federal government’s recent Critical Minerals Strategy and commits to remaining a Canadian-based miner focused on “future-oriented metals,” “an electric vehicle battery recycling facility” and support for “junior Canadian mining and exploration companies.” It also preserves B.C.’s coal mining jobs and revenues.
There’s a parallel universe where a G7 country protects its most exquisite metallurgical coal deposit, required to produce a critical material for any advanced economy, energy system or military. That introduces policy to reshore and build up its domestic steel industry in an era of growing geopolitical turbulence.
The world in 2023 is not this place. And Canada is not that G7 country. Indeed, the world view of the current federal and B.C. governments sees the decline of coal as both imminent and necessary. There is no way they will make the argument that the material is a strategic resource that must remain under Canadian ownership.
But coal is not going anywhere. Some countries will benefit, economically and strategically, from controlling it. Canada will not be among them.