07/16/2013 12:26 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Don't Bank on Jobs From a 'Coal Rush'

Last month, the Comox Valley Regional District, a municipal government on central Vancouver Island, received notice that two companies were seeking coal mining permits in the region. These permits don't necessarily mean the mines will be built, but they're part of a disturbing trend to resurrect coal mining on the Island -- a shift some locals are calling the new "Coal Rush."

The new permit requests join the active Quinsam Coal mine near Campbell River and the proposed Raven Coal mine in the Comox Valley -- both extremely contentious developments because of their impacts on local ecosystems. The two are enormous risks to nearby aquifers, endanger water quality and threaten the region's thriving shellfish industry.

The environmental impacts of mining are widely known and well documented. In ecologically sensitive areas, the practice is deservedly stigmatized. You don't have to travel far to see the toxic legacy this industry can leave behind long after the mines themselves are gone.

Across the Salish Sea in Howe Sound, the Britannia Mine, a mixed-metal mine that closed 39 years ago, is a poster child for acid mine drainage -- a common consequence of mining that causes highly contaminated and acidic water to run into the surrounding environment. The Britannia Mine is considered to be one of the largest sources of metal pollution in North America and a major factor in the environmental degradation of Howe Sound.

In 2000, Vancouver Island's Tsolum River was declared "dead" by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans after decades of contamination from a long-abandoned copper mine. The Tsolum's once-bountiful salmon run was essentially wiped out from historical returns of hundreds of thousand to less than a few hundred fish by century's end.

The argument for coal extraction is economic development. The thing is, there is abundant research showing that investing in coal is a comparatively inefficient way to create jobs. A report published late last year by Seattle-based Sightline Institute shows that forestry, agriculture, transit, building retrofits, water infrastructure, school construction, wind, solar, the financial sector, and many others all create more jobs per dollar invested than coal. Put bluntly, the report concludes that "it's hard to make a worse jobs investment than coal."

In addition, coal mining threatens jobs in other sectors that rely on a stable, healthy environment. Chief among these is the Baynes Sound shellfish industry -- a sustainable industry that generates close to $30 million per year and 600 year-round local jobs. Baynes Sound is located five kilometres downhill from the site of the proposed Raven Mine, and the shellfish grown there are very sensitive to an increase in acidity - which is extremely likely if Raven is approved.

Not only does the coal industry create fewer jobs and threaten existing jobs in other sectors - it creates jobs that don't last.

The Raven mine, for example, would operate for a maximum of sixteen years and immediately void the Island of all economic benefit upon its closure. Therefore, by investing in things like coal, we're not solving economic problems or job shortages -- we are simply postponing them.

We are offloading the burden of shifting to a sustainable economy to whoever is making decisions in a decade or two. This is irresponsible. Future generations will be forced to make these changes in a world with less resilient local ecosystems (especially if high-impact projects like the Raven Mine go through) and a far more unstable global climate.

Yet the proponents of unsustainable, finite resource-based industries seem hell-bent on leaving this task to future generations. What is even more disappointing is that our provincial and federal governments appear to share this stubborn refusal to take bold, meaningful steps towards sustainable development.

And make no mistake, this is what we need: bold, meaningful action to improve environmental and socio-economic sustainability. Economic activities that can be carried out on a long-term or infinite basis will by nature have lower impacts on ecological systems, and longer-lasting or even permanent financial benefits to local communities.

We need to formulate a principle of sustainability - can this activity be done perpetually and can these resources be renewed? - and only develop based on this principle.

Some might disregard this notion as "pie-in-the-sky" or unrealistic. But it's been done before. First Nations people thrived on this coast for thousands of years, developing their own resource management strategies, which have since been categorically ignored by industry and politicians alike.

And this isn't a question of whether or not we can make the shift to sustainable economies. We will do it eventually, it is guaranteed finite resources will, in fact, run out.

The only question is whether we do it now or later.

Now, while watersheds, ecosystems, and renewable resources have a chance to rebound, while there still seem to be folks with money willing to invest on Vancouver Island, and while the eager echo-boom generation is looking for careers in the industries with a future. Or we can wait until inaction wreaks socio-economic havoc on coastal communities, forests, rivers, oceans, ushering the collapse of finite resource-based industries.

This question is an easy one to answer.

Up and down Vancouver Island and the whole West Coast, historically speaking, the regions with the slowest economies and most dismal job prospects are the ones that put all their eggs in the resource-extraction basket (primarily fisheries and forestry). In displays of astonishing incompetence by federal and provincial ministries, these resources were mismanaged to the point where the industries they supported shrank dramatically or disappeared altogether. The local communities paid the price, every single time.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as the act of doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results. By this definition, exploiting coal and other dirty, finite resources in the name of economic development is completely insane. We know it will negatively impact the local environment and jeopardize water quality. We know it won't have long-term benefits or create resilient communities.

We can change our economic trajectory right now and start prioritizing renewable, sustainable projects and ideas. We can continue to rush for archaic resources like coal, and literally dig ourselves a deeper grave.

What will you stand for?