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The Year Coal Was on the Upswing in Cape Breton, Canada



January 5, 2020 - Coal mining was supposed to be phased out in Cape Breton, Canada by 1982, but the oil crisis changed all that.

"This was the year — 1982 — that Cape Breton's biggest industry was supposed to be shut down for good," said Knowlton Nash, host of CBC's The National, on Jan. 4 that year.

He explained that the federal government had started planning the phase-out of Cape Breton coal mining in the '60s after deciding the fossil fuel had "no future." 

But, in his words, "the Arab oil embargo changed all that." As the price of oil went up, coal came back.

'No Shortage of the Stuff'

As reporter Michael Vaughan explained at the time, petroleum made up just five percent of the world's fossil fuel reserves. The other 95 percent was coal.

And given the oil shortages and rationing of the late 1970s, coal had become an attractive source of fuel again.

"Coal's future is Cape Breton's future," said Vaughan. "And finally, it's looking brighter."

Coal was more valuable than it had been in years, for one thing.

"We have an opportunity to bring a coal industry ... into the 21st century," said Steve Rankin of the Cape Breton Development Corp., also known as Devco.

If the industry was getting a chance to modernize, the work itself was the same as it ever was.

"Few jobs could be as difficult, as dirty, as dangerous as coal mining," said Vaughan.

There had been a deadly mine accident two years earlier that killed 12 men, and everyone was back on the job the next day, "as usual." 

And yet Devco had a stack of 5,000 names of Cape Breton workers seeking jobs.

Developments in Coal Technology

The mine industry was growing for a very simple economic reason: compared with oil, coal was a cost-effective energy buy.

"That's opened up a huge new market for coal in its natural form: coal to be burned, especially in energy plants," said Vaughan.  

But there were also patented technologies that could use coal in other forms.

"It's not easy to do, but coal can be turned into gasoline," said Vaughan.

He went on to describe a process that made another type of fuel called carbogel. It turned coal into fine dust, and added water plus a binding agent.

"With this liquid fuel, the conversion of oil-burning plants to coal-burning ones is a relatively quick and inexpensive process."

More drilling for coal was then underway, and there was a lot of it under the ocean off Cape Breton.

And another mine in development, the Donkin-Morien mine, was slated to open in three or four years. It would see an investment of $300 million by the federal government by then, said Vaughan.

"There's no gambling involved," said project engineer John Gillman. "It's strictly a matter of locating the seam ... and being able to finalize mine plans."

According to, the Donkin mine in Cape Breton closed in 2002 and remained dormant for more than 15 years before being reopened in 2017.