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 2017 was 61 million tonnes
  • Canada exported 31 million tonnes of coal and imported 7.5 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 the coal produced in Canada 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 themselves. Other companies generate electricity from purchased coal.

International context

Global coal production in 2017 is estimated at 7.3 billion tonnes, increasing by 51 million tonnes from 2016. The top 5 producing countries accounted for 76% of the world's coal production.

World coal production, 2007–2017 (p)

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This bar chart shows the world's annual coal production from 2007 to 2017. Production in 2007 was 6.4 billion tonnes. It then grew, peaking in in 2013 at 8.1 billion tonnes. Production in 2017 was 7.3 billion tonnes.

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

World Production
World coal production, 2007–2017 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 China 3,159 43.1%
2 India 724 9.9%
3 United States 702 9.6%
4 Australia 501 6.8%
5 Indonesia 488 6.7%
13 Canada 61 0.8%
- Other countries 1,686 23.1%
- Total 7,320 100.0%
World exports
World exports, 2017 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 Indonesia 391 28.5%
2 Australia 379 27.7%
3 Russia 190 13.8%
4 United States 88 6.4%
5 Colombia 86 6.3%
8 Canada 31 2.2%
- Other countries 207   15.1%
- Total 1,370 100.0%
World imports
World imports, 2017 (p)
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 China 271 19.5%
2 India 208 15.0%
3 Japan 188 13.5%
4 South Korea 148 10.7%
5 Chinese Taipei 68 5.0%
- Other countries 504 36.4%
- Total 1,387 100.0%
World proved reserves
World proven reserves, 2017
Rank Country Million tonnes Percentage of total
1 United States 250,916 24.2%
2 Russia 160,364 15.5%
3 Australia 144,818 14.0%
4 China 138,819 13.4%
5 India 97,728 9.4%
16 Canada 6,582 0,6%
- Other countries 235,785 23,0%
- Total 1,035,012 100.0%

Trade

Canada's imports of coal imports have trended downwards 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.

Canadian coal trade, 2005–2017 (p)

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From 2005 to 2013, coal exports increased from 28 million tonnes to almost 40 million tonnes before falling to about 30 million tonnes in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Coal imports decreased from 21 million tonnes in 2005 to 7.5 million tonnes in 2017.

In 2017, Canada exported 31 million tonnes of coal around the world. and imported 7.5 million tonnes of coal mostly from the United States. Exports to the United States accounted for 3% of Canadian coal exports, and represented 11% of total United States coal imports.

Canada's exports are primarily metallurgical coal (93% in 2017).

In 2017 the U.S. increased coal exports by 61% to 97 Mt as their exports to Asia more than doubled. Metallurgical coal accounted for 57% of U.S. exports.

Canadian exports and imports of coal (2017)

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In 2017, Canadian exports of coal were valued at 6.8 billion dollars. The major destinations for those exports were Japan (23%), South Korea (20%), China (15%). Three percent of Canada's coal exports are to the United States, representing 11% of U.S. coal imports. As for Canadian coal imports, 74% come from the United States. Half of all 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. Canada produced 61 Mt of coal in 2017, of which 56% is metallurgical coal used for steel manufacturing and 44% thermal coal used for electricity.

In Canada, 9% of electricity is generated with coal. Electricity generation consumed 34.4 Mt in 2016, a 5% decrease from 36.2 Mt in 2015.

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 circular 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 remained steady at 61 million tonnes in 2017.

Canadian coal production, 2008–2017 (p)

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This bar chart shows Canada's annual mine production of coal from 2008 to 2017. Production was 68.4 million tonnes in 2008, followed by ups and downs over a 10-year period. It peaked in 2007 at 69 million tonnes. Production was 61 million tonnes in 2017.

Coal production
by province, 2017

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Canada produced 61 megatonnes of coal in 2017. Production by province is as follows: British Columbia 49%, Alberta 34%, Saskatchewan 16%, and Nova Scotia at 1%.

Coal fired generating capacityFootnote * by province, 2017

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Canada has a coal-fired electricity generating capacity of 8,159 MW in 2017 (excluding temporarily deactivated capacity). Alberta has the largest proportion of coal-fired generating capacity at 59%, and is followed by Saskatchewan (19%) and Nova Scotia (15%).

Coal used for electricity generation

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Electricity generation consumed 34.4 Mt in 2016, a 5% decrease from 36.2 Mt in 2015.

Prices

The global metallurgical coal price peaked three 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.

Australia, Colombia and South Africa are globally recognized as the three terminal markets 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
  • Declined again in the first half of 2017 to finally reach $84 to $US98 per tonne in December 2017

Coal prices are directly related to global economic conditions. Recent price increases have been due to temporary mine disruptions in Australia and production cutbacks by mines in China.

Global coal prices, 2008–2017

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This line chart shows four series of monthly coal prices in US dollars per tonne from 2008 to 2017. The upper line shows that the Australian premium hard coking coal price started at $300 in January 2008, fell to $129 in 2009, rose to $211 in 2010, peaking at $324 in the spring 2011, continuously declining to $77 by December 2015, and thereafter 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 per tonne in January 2007, trending upward and peaking at $170 to $180 per tonne in the summer 2008, falling to $55 to $75 per tonne in the spring 2009. Prices bounced back to $115 to $132 per tonne in early 2011, then continuously declined to $45 to $52 by December 2015 before rallying to $89 to $100 per tonne in November 2016. After declining at the beginning of 2017, the price of thermal coal increased slightly to finish the year at $84 to $98 per tonne.

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Notes and sources

Numbers may not add to totals due to rounding.

(p) preliminary