That ’70s Crisis

“Tartan and coal” proclaimed the front page of the Cape Breton Post, rather cryptically, on Saturday and I couldn’t resist trying to guess what the headline referred to before I actually read the article: the world’s worst ice cream flavor? Sydney Academy’s Class of ’57 prom theme? Alexander Graham Bell’s terriers?


Turns out, it’s Steve Drake’s blood type:

You could describe Steve Drake as a New Waterford man with blood of tartan and coal.

Yes, you could do that – and in point of fact, you did — but you really raise more questions than you answer, like, what happens when he needs a transfusion? Does he go to the gift shop at the Gaelic College? And if he bleeds on my white rug, will club soda take it out?

Sadly, despite the length of the article – it occupied the entire front page and half of A4 — none of the practicalities of having plaid bitumen running through one’s veins were explored. But then again, neither was another issue that I would consider even more germane to this story.


Donkin or die

The Post article is about Drake’s single-minded (and handed, in his account) pursuit of the Donkin Mine, or the “Steve Drake road show,” as he describes it, which he says he launched in 1994, when he first became president of District 6 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA):

Peace in his heart never came until 23 years later. He arrived at work on March 1 and saw the headline, ‘King Coal’ on the front page of The Cape Breton Post. Production had finally begun at Donkin Mine, bringing his lifelong quest to fruition.

Although I feel compelled to point out that as Drake is 60, 1994 was rather late in the day to begin a “lifelong quest,” I  must also admit that I have always been impressed by his biography – coal miner turned union boss turned law student turned crown attorney. It’s the stuff of a Frank Capra movie (called Tartan and Coal possibly).

That said, there are a number of things about him that I simply can’t fathom: why would a former UMWA president cheer the opening of a non-union pit operated by a company (the Cline Group) with a poor safety record?

Why would a man who is living proof there is life after the coal industry be so anxious to send another generation handful of Cape Bretoners into the mines? (There are currently 64 “full-time employees/contractors” at work and Kameron Collieries, the Cline subsidiary that runs Donkin, is forecasting a total of 135 full-time workers at full production.) Why would he want them to be at the mercy of a notoriously boom and bust industry?

What the Post describes as Drake’s “unshakable belief in the coal mining industry” frankly makes my eyes cross, although I think I may have discovered a clue to his optimism in this article: Drake, you see, became a coal miner in 1977.



What is the significance of that year? Gather round, millennials, and you shall here of a dark and cold period in North American history called “The Energy Crisis.”

It’s a complicated story which I am not going to explain in detail (that’s what the internets are for) but here’s the gist: in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in an attempt to reclaim lands lost during the Six-Day War of 1967.  The US came to Israel’s aid, providing arms and money, and in response, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), which consisted of the Arab members of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus Syria and Egypt, embargoed oil shipments to the US and other Western countries supporting Israel (including Canada) and raised the posted price of oil by 70% to $5.11.

By The Central Intelligence Agency (Libyan Oil Facility) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Libyan oil facility. Libya was one of the OAPEC members that embargoed the sale of oil to the U.S. from October 1973 to March 1974. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.” (Source: CIA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, you need to understand, the price of oil had been so low since the end of the Second World War that the US, Canada and other Western countries were using it for everything short of bar mix. (In 1973, the US, with 6% of the world’s population, was consuming 33% of the world’s energy.)

So the sudden increase in the price of oil (combined with the fact that US domestic oil production had peaked in 1970), was nothing short of catastrophic for Americans who had actually shaped their lives around cheap oil — living in distant suburbs, driving to and from work (and shopping malls and recreation facilities and drive-in restaurants and movie theaters), “getting away from it all” on Sundays by piling into the family car. Suddenly, in October 1973, US drivers found themselves in long lines at gas stations, often arriving at the pumps to find they’d run dry.

The OPEC embargo ended in 1974, but oil prices remained high for the rest of the decade, especially after oil-producing Iran ousted its US-supported Shah in favor of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978.

The “energy crisis,” as it came to be known, had both immediate and longer-term effects. Immediately, it spawned an interest in energy conservation: people were encouraged to turn down thermostats, put on sweaters, drive less, drive slower (in the US, speed limits were lowered to 55mph), turn off lights in unoccupied rooms, use lower-watt bulbs, etc, etc, etc.

Manufacturers began producing more energy-efficient appliances; Japanese automakers, with their smaller, more fuel-efficient cars began eating Detroit’s lunch; and people began to look seriously at “renewable” sources of energy, like solar and wind and nuclear.



Energy security

The crisis also sparked concerns over “energy security.” Both the US and Canada began looking for ways to wean themselves off imported oil. On the bright side (speaking as a human being in 2017 with some understanding of climate change and global warming) it led to investments in renewable energy.

On the less-bright side, it led to an increase in domestic fossil fuel production which ultimately resulted in the shale gas boom (your attitude toward which probably depends on whether or not you can light your tap water on fire).

Here in Canada, besides inspiring that great Alberta bug-bear, the National Energy Program, the energy crisis led the federal government to invest in coal. In Nova Scotia, according to this potted history of coal from the province’s Energy Strategy:

[B]y the early 1970s a world oil crisis resulted in significant increases in fuel oil prices and renewed demand for coal. Concerns over the price and security of fuel supply for electrical power generation in the province led the provincially owned electrical utility to construct new coal-fired power generating plants, which provided increased coal markets for Nova Scotia’s mining industry.

Yes, the Energy Crisis is the reason why Nova Scotia is so dependent on coal-fired generating plants today.

Lingan coal-fired generating station, Cape Breton (Photo by By Ken Heaton (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Lingan coal-fired generating station, Cape Breton (Photo by Ken Heaton, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This renewed interest in coal came at a time when the Cape Breton industry was on its way out. According to Hugh Millward (in an essay from the collection, Cape Breton at 200: Historical Essays in Honour of the Island’s Bicentennial), “Coal production declined drastically from 5.2 million tons in 1940 to slightly over one million tons in 1973 as oil, natural gas, and hydro-electricity overthrew ‘King Coal.'”

Things had become “so desperate,” the federal government had established the Cape Breton Development Corporation (Devco) in 1967 with a mandate, as David Frank explained, in a 2016 essay in Acadiensis, to “close down the mines in an orderly fashion” and “promote the essential transition to a new economic base.”

Sadly, the mandate was never fulfilled. The energy crisis of the 1970s tempted Devco to open new coal mines, and when coal markets once again collapsed, the local economy was still in no position to recover.


Back to the future?

Which brings us back to Steve Drake: he became a miner in 1977. His entry into the mines coincided with this anomalous spike in the coal sector.  This was the backdrop against which he developed his “unshakable belief” in the industry.

But that industry was declining even before his own career ended in the ’90s. The climate scientists were at work and their discoveries did not bode well for coal, which they labeled as the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. The words “global warming” entered the lexicon. Canada hosted the first conference on climate change, in Toronto in 1988.

Drake’s “unshakeable belief” is misplaced. To put it in perspective, even Robert Murray of Murray Energy Corp, coal baron and climate change-denier, a man who has broken his neck twice in mining accidents (and once in a car accident, in addition to his four strokes, really, he’s worth reading about) admits the decline in the industry is unlikely to be reversed. (His goal, he’s said, is to make as much money as he possibly can before it is well and truly over.)

That’s the reality of coal mining in 2017 and it bears almost no resemblance to the world Drake knew — working in unionized mines run by the Canadian government — in the 1980s.




Featured photo: Sign of the Energy Crisis, Cleveland, Ohio, 1972. By Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons


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