Coal facts

Coal is an organically derived material. It is formed from the remains of decayed plant material compacted into a solid through millions of years of chemical changes under pressure and heat. Its rich carbon content gives coal most of its energy content. When coal is burned in the presence of air or oxygen, heat energy is released.

This energy can then be converted to other forms of useful energy. Primary applications for coal are thermal (e.g., electricity generation) and metallurgical (e.g., coking or steelmaking coal).

Key facts

  • The main use of coal is electricity generation.
  • Coal is also a key ingredient in the manufacturing of steel and cement.
  • Canada’s coal production in 2016 was 61 million tonnes.
  • Canada exported 30 million tonnes of coal and imported 6 million tonnes.
  • Canada is the world’s third largest exporter of metallurgical coal, after Australia and the United States.
  • Alberta and British Columbia produce 85% of Canada’s coal.
  • In 2016, the Government of Canada announced its plan to eliminate the use of traditional coal-fired electricity in Canada by 2030.

Learn more about coal

Coal industry

In 2015, coal made up 28.1% of the world’s energy supply. In Canada, many parts of the nation have abundant low-cost, domestic coal, while other regions have easy access to an international supply.

The Canadian coal industry produces coal for use in metallurgical applications (e.g., coking or steelmaking) and thermal applications (e.g., electricity generation).

Nearly half of coal produced is thermal and half is metallurgical. Some power-generating companies not only use coal for electricity generation but also own coal mines or are involved in coal production. Other companies generate electricity from purchased coal.

International context

Global coal production in 2016 is estimated at 7.3 billion tonnes, a decrease of 458 million tonnes from 2015. The top 10 producing countries accounted for 91% of world coal production.

World coal production, 2006–2016 (p)

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This bar chart shows the world’s annual coal production from 2007 to 2016. Production in 2007 was 6.4 billion tonnes. It then trended upward to peak in 2013 at 8.1 billion tonnes. Production in 2016 was 7.3 billion tonnes.

Find out how Canada’s coal ranks on an international scale:

World Production
World production (excluding coal products—e.g., coke), 2016 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 China 3,243 44.6%
2 India 708 9.7%
3 United States 672 9.2%
4 Australia 503 6.9%
5 Indonesia 461 6.3%
12 Canada 61 0.8%
- Other countries 1,621 22.3%
- Total 7,269 100.0%
World exports
World exports, 2016 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 Australia 389 29.2%
2 Indonesia 370 27.7%
3 Russia 171 12.8%
4 Colombia 83 6.2%
5 South Africa 77 5.7%
9 Canada 30 2.3%
- Other countries 213   16.0%
- Total 1,334 100.0%
World imports
World imports, 2016 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 China 256 19.2%
2 India 200 15.0%
3 Japan 189 14.2%
4 South Korea 135 10.1%
5 Chinese Taipei 66 5.0%
- Other countries 486 36.5%
- Total 1,331 100.0%
World proved reserves
World proved reserves, 2014
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 United States 253,124 25.7%
2 Russia 160,364 16.3%
3 China 131,614 13.4%
4 Australia 106,259 10.8%
5 India 90,276 9.2%
15 Canada 6,582 0.7%
- Other countries 236,405 24.0%
- Total 984,624 100.0%

Trade

Coal imports have been trending down for over a decade, while exports have held steady. Canada exports about half of its production. The majority of Canada’s coal exports go to Asia, which is still a significant consumer.

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From 2005 to 2013, coal exports increased slightly from 28 million tonnes to almost 40 million tonnes before falling to about 30 million tonnes in 2015 and 2016. Coal imports decreased from 21 million tonnes in 2005 to 6.3 million tonnes in 2016.

In 2016, Canada exported 30 million tonnes of coal around the world and imported 6 million tonnes of coal mostly from the United States.

Canadian exports and imports of coal (2016)

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In 2016, Canadian exports of coal were valued at 4.5 billion dollars. The major destination of those exports were: Japan with 24%, South Korea with 20%, China with 16%. 3% of Canada’s coal exports are to the United States, representing 11% of U.S. coal imports. 76% of Canadian coal imports come from the United States. Half of imports are used for the manufacturing of steel, the rest is for electricity generation.

Uses

Coal is used for electricity generation, the manufacturing of steel and cement, and various industrial and residential applications. In 2016, electricity generation accounted for 65.5% of total global coal usage. 

In Canada, 10% of electricity is generated with coal. With the phasing out of coal-fired electricity by the Government of Canada, energy produced by coal will be eliminated by 2030. That said, coal will continue to be used for metallurgical processes.

Global use of coal, 2015

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This pie chart shows the major global uses of coal in percentages in 2015. The largest share of coal was used in electricity generation and heating (66%), followed by other sectors (17%), the steel industry (16%) and residential (2%).

Canadian production

Canadian production of coal from mines declined to 61 million tonnes in 2016 from 62 million tonnes in 2015. The decline was due to weak global demand for metallurgical coal, which resulted in reduced production at several coal mines in Canada.

Canadian coal production, 2007–2016 (p)

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This bar chart shows Canada’s annual mine production of coal from 2007 to 2016. Production was 69 million tonnes in 2007, followed by ups and downs over a 10-year period. It peaked twice during this period (in 2007 and 2014) at 69 million tonnes. Production was 61 million tonnes in 2016, which was the lowest level in the 10-year period.

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Canada produced 61.0 megatonnes of coal in 2016. Production by province is as follows: British Columbia 43%, Alberta 42%, and Saskatchewan 15%.

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Canada consumed 36.2 megatonnes of coal for electricity generation in 2015. Alberta consumed 67% of the coal used for electricity generation in Canada, Saskatchewan follows with 24%, then Nova Scotia with 7%, New Brunswick with 2%, and Manitoba with 0.1%.

Coal-fired generating capacity by province, 2016

Province
Total
coal-generating capacity (MW)
Share of total capacity (%)
Alberta 6,457 65.7%
Saskatchewan 1,530 15.6%
Nova Scotia 1,252 12.7%
New Brunswick 490 5%
Manitoba** 105 1.1%
Total 9,834 100%

Prices

The global metallurgical coal price peaked 3 times over the last 10-year period:

  • US$300 per tonne in 2008
  • US$330 per tonne in 2011
  • US$294 per tonne in 2016

Globally, thermal coal prices experienced a similar trend.

The Australian, Colombian and South African terminal markets are globally recognized as the 3 that determine global thermal coal prices. Over the last 10-year period, prices have fluctuated as follows:

  • peaked in the summer of 2008 at US$170 to US$180 per tonne
  • declined through 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 to reach US$45 to US$52 per tonne by December 2015
  • rallied to reach US$89 to US$100 per tonne in November 2016

Fluctuating and declining prices were directly tied to global economic ups and downs. The most recent price rally has been due to temporary mine disruptions in Australia and production cutbacks by mines in China.

Global coal prices, 2007–2016

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This line chart shows 4 series of monthly coal prices in U.S. dollars per tonne from 2007 to 2016. The upper line shows that the Australian premium hard coking coal price started at $96 in January 2007, jumped to $300 in 2008, fell to $129 in 2009, bounced back to $211 in 2010, peaked at $324 in spring 2011, continuously declined to $77 by December 2015, and rose to $294 in November 2016. The lower three lines show that the Australian thermal, Colombian thermal and South African thermal coal prices began at $50 to $51 in January 2007, trended upward and peaked at $170 to $180 in summer 2008, fell to $55 to $75 in spring 2009, bounced back to $115 to $132 in early 2011, and then continuously declined to $45 to $52 by December 2015 before rallying to $89 to $100 in November 2016.

Find out more about minerals and metals facts

Notes and sources

Numbers may not add to totals due to rounding.

(p) preliminary

International context

  • World coal production, 2006–2016 (p)
    • International Energy Agency, Coal Information 2016
  • World production (excluding coal products—e.g., coke), 2016 (p)
    • International Energy Agency, Coal Information
  • World exports, 2016 (p)
    • International Energy Agency, Coal Information
  • World imports, 2016 (p)
  • World proved reserves, 2014 

Trade

  • Canadian trade of coal, 2005–2016
    • Natural Resources Canada
    • Statistics Canada
  • Canadian exports and imports of coal (2016)

Use

  • Global use of coal, 2015
    • International Energy Agency, Coal Information 2017

Canadian production

  • Canadian coal production, 2007–2016 (p)
    • Natural Resources Canada
    • Statistics Canada
  • Production by province, 2016 and Coal used for electricity generation by province, 2015
    • Compiled by Natural Resources Canada from Statistics Canada and other public sources
    • Production by province is a Natural Resources Canada estimate
  • Coal-fired generating capacity by province, 2016
    • Compiled by Natural Resources Canada from Statistics Canada and other public sources
    • ** As per provincial regulations, the Brandon coal-fired power plant may be used only in emergency situations.

Prices

  • Global coal prices, 2007–2016
    • Natural Resources Canada; World Bank; AME; McCloskey
    • All prices are in nominal U.S. dollars, free on board (f.o.b.) port terms. Between 2007 and 2010, Australian premium hard metallurgical or coking coal prices were the annual contract prices. From 2011 to 2015, they were monthly prices. Australian thermal was f.o.b. Newcastle 6,300 kilocalories per kilogram, Colombian thermal was f.o.b. Bolivar 6,450 kilocalories per kilogram and South African thermal was f.o.b. Richard Bay 6,000 kilocalories per kilogram.