Premier Stephen McNeil offered up his support for the Donkin mine project Thursday, but environmental groups disagree with the premier's line of green thinking.

Speaking to reporters, McNeil said coal will likely continue to be burned in Nova Scotia for many years. He said the mine, which could be producing coal by late spring, will provide Nova Scotia Power with a more local source of fuel.

"When you look at the overall environmental impact, the closer the fuel source can be to where it's going to be used … does make some sense to us," he said.

At present, Nova Scotia Power imports most of its coal from South America. McNeil also said there are technologies today that make burning coal a cleaner source of energy.

"There's new technologies today that deal with those issues," he said.

However, the Ecology Action Centre says those arguments are short-sighted.

"You might be making a dirty fuel source a little less dirty, but you're not making it clean," said energy co-ordinator Catherine Abreu.

Coal is 'a dying industry'

She said it doesn't make sense for a coal mine to open in Nova Scotia at a time when much of the world is turning its back on fossil fuel use.

"When you start hearing a country like China talk about starting to phase out coal, you know that it's a dying industry," she said.

The Donkin mine project's current manager, Kameron Coal, expects to cut the first piece of Donkin coal in late spring. Kameron Coal is a subsidiary of U.S. coal company Cline Group, which bought the mine from Australian company Xstrata Coal last year.

Around 30 people are working at the site now and the company will hire a total of 120 people in several rounds over the next year.

Abreu said she is sensitive to the need for jobs in Cape Breton, but thinks coal mining work is not the answer.

"I think we can all agree that we don't want just any job. We want the kinds of stable, long-term jobs that a community can really build its future plans on," she said.

Greenhouse gas concerns

The provincial government estimates Donkin coal extraction will release the equivalent of one megatonne of greenhouse gases per year, based on an environment assessment of the project. One megatonne is equal to the total emissions of all the cars in a city the size of London, Ont., or Quebec City.

The province has a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to a level that is 10 per cent less than 1990 emissions.

Provincial officials have said Nova Scotia is on track to exceed its greenhouse gas targets by 2020, and the province will still remain within the threshold if the mine goes into production.

Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May disputes that.

"There simply is no way to drastically reduce the amount of emissions that would be produced if underground coal mining is allowed," she said in a statement.

Abreu said people should be talking more about not burning coal in Nova Scotia.

"We need to be thinking not about how we can continue to keep burning coal in Nova Scotia, but how we can continue to move away from it," she said.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said coal extraction would release methane. In fact, it would release a combination of greenhouse gases. This story has been updated to include the source of the province's estimate.
    Jan 11, 2016 11:00 AM AT
With files from Jean Laroche