Prince George Free Press
Chinese interests are looking at opening three new underground coal mines in B.C.’s northeast that domestic companies don’t have the expertise to operate, said Jobs Minister Pat Bell.
He said two Chinese coal companies and one steelmaker have plans to lease the mine sites near Tumbler Ridge from another Chinese mining firm already active in B.C.
The mines, as Bell understands them, “are very large projects, measured literally in hundreds of millions of dollars,” and could result in up to 6,000 direct and indirect jobs. Meanwhile, their estimated eight million tonnes of annual coal production, double the current level in the Peace, would likely be used by steelmakers to fuel China’s growth.
The Quinsam mine near Comox is the only underground coal mine currently operating in B.C., and Bell, who is in China on a trade mission, told reporters on a conference call that the three new prospects may be too daunting for domestic miners.
“I think many B.C.-based mining companies have walked away from these projects over the years, because the notion of going underground would be intimidating for them,” Bell said. “They haven’t developed the technical expertise that the Chinese have.”
The president of the Mining Association of B.C. politely disagreed.
“Canadians are world leaders in mining, including undergound mining, so I can’t say I entirely agree with the minister,” said Pierre Gratton.
He did agree that open pit mining is more common in the province, “but that speaks more to the nature of the resource than expertise.”
Gratton pointed out there are at least three undergound mineral mines currently operating around B.C., and said the fact it’s Chinese interests now looking to go underground in the North likely speaks to the economics of the projects.
“They’ve got the capital, and now we’ve got the metallurgical coal prices that make it attractive.”
Underground mines’ safety records are “not quite as strong as for open pit,” Gratton added, “but there is still a very strong safety performance in B.C.’s underground mining sector.”
Bell said the three Chinese companies interested in the mines are privately owned and “have the fiscal resources already in place to do it and the connections, I think, to make it happen.”
He said officials he has met with in that country were interested in learning about B.C.’s streamlined regulatory approval process. The minister expects the companies could seek the necessary approvals by the end of 2011 and begin production possibly within two years.