Donkin mine greenhouse gas emissions should be under cap and trade, experts say

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St. Francis Xavier University Earth sciences professor Dave Risk says greenhouse gas emissions from the Donkin coal mine should be included under Nova Scotia's cap-and-trade program. (Submitted by Dave Risk - image credit)
St. Francis Xavier University Earth sciences professor Dave Risk says greenhouse gas emissions from the Donkin coal mine should be included under Nova Scotia's cap-and-trade program. (Submitted by Dave Risk - image credit)

Environmental researchers and activists are concerned that greenhouse gas emissions from the Donkin mine are excluded under Nova Scotia's carbon pollution reduction plans, but the federal government says the province is allowed to do that as long as it meets minimum targets for total emissions.

The underground coal mine continues to exceed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limits under the province's cap-and-trade program, even though it has been idled for two years. Yet mine owner Kameron Coal has not been forced to buy carbon credits to offset the extra pollution.

Regardless, both levels of government say the province has met its reduction targets and therefor the mine emissions do not have to be included in carbon pricing.

No one from Environment and Climate Change Canada was available for an interview on Wednesday, but in an email, the department said Nova Scotia's current cap-and-trade system "was assessed as meeting the benchmark criteria for 2019-2022."

"From a federal perspective, it would be acceptable under the benchmark criteria for [Nova Scotia] to include these emissions, but it is not obligatory."

The Sierra Club of Canada has raised concerns about the mine's methane emissions, saying they contribute to global warming and are not generating any revenue the province could use to transition to clean energy.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Underground coal mines typically emit methane, which is converted into carbon dioxide equivalents for comparison with CO2, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride and other greenhouse gases.

According to the Sierra Club, Kameron Coal reported CO2 equivalents of nearly 423,000 tonnes in 2019, which was its last full year of operation.

That number dropped to nearly 371,000 tonnes the following year and Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change said the mine emitted just over 151,000 tonnes last year.

Dave Risk, an Earth sciences professor at St. Francis Xavier University and lead researcher at the Flux Lab specializing in methane measurements, said the Donkin mine is likely the largest methane emitter in the province and its emissions should be included in carbon pricing.

Without them, the cost of emitting greenhouse gases is driving up the price of electricity, because the province's utility is one of the largest GHG emitters.

"I do worry that in our choice to take the mine out of the cap-and-trade program that we force more mitigation onto parties like Nova Scotia Power," he said.

"In fairness, it would be reasonable to include the mine and to have it contributing, because all organizations and companies that are emitters do need to do their part and do need to pay for the pollution that they put in the atmosphere."

Nick Pearce
Nick Pearce

Larry Hughes, a computer engineering professor at Dalhousie University and an energy expert who authored an analysis last year on Nova Scotia's GHG emissions reductions, said the mine's emissions represented about two-and-a-half per cent of all the province's 2019 emissions and about two per cent in 2020.

He was unavailable for a phone interview, but said in an email that those emissions are significant and should be included in the province's cap-and-trade program.

"If I was participating in the [cap-and-trade program] program, I would be annoyed," Hughes said. "The only way emissions reduction works in any reduction program ... is if all emitters are involved."

At COP26, the international climate conference in Scotland last year, participants including Canada pledged to reduce methane emissions.

'Take environment into account'

"If Canada is serious about this, it will need to target companies like Kameron," said Hughes.

"Why is Kameron allowed to do this? My first thought was jobs in Cape Breton. I suppose making the province appear 'business friendly' helps, as well. However, in this day and age, we need to take other things into account, notably the environment."

The federal environment department said emissions from burning coal make up the majority of GHGs and are easy to measure.

Emissions leaking from mines and other industrial processes are included in the carbon pricing system, it said, but benchmark levels cover a broad range of sources and if the minimums are met, mine leakage does not have to be included.

In addition to the commitment made at COP26 last year, Canada has joined the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce global man-made methane emissions by at least 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030, the department said.

The federal government is also targeting methane reductions in the oil and gas sector and increasing the number of landfills that collect and treat methane and will support dairy and other industries taking steps to reduce carbon pollution.

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