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Our Canadian Exports: Steelmaking Coal and Potash

Company news Canadian Exports

From our terminal in North Vancouver, Neptune handles potash from Saskatchewan and steelmaking coal from British Columbia and Alberta. Our main business is unloading trains and loading ships. In doing so, we are part of an important supply chain, exporting in-demand Canadian commodities to markets all over the world where they are used to feed people and build communities.

Steelmaking Coal:

The Canadian steelmaking coal handled at Neptune Terminals is, as its name suggests, used in the production of steel.

Coal is a naturally occurring rock, formed over millions of years as plants and other organic materials are buried and subjected to geological forces. Heat and pressure cause physical and chemical changes that result in carbon-rich coal.

To make steel, steelmaking coal is first brought to a high temperature in an oxygen-less oven that drives off its impurities and produces coke, a pure form of carbon. The coke is then combined with iron ore and other ingredients in a blast furnace to produce steel.

Steel – and the coal used in the production of steel – is used to make many of the things we rely on each day, including cell phones and tablets, bicycles and kitchen appliances. Steel also plays a critical role in green energy production: wind turbines, solar panels, tidal power systems and bio-energy infrastructure all require steel. For example, 100 tonnes of steelmaking coal is required to produce the 185 tonnes of steel used in a typical wind turbine. Steel is also one of the most commonly recycled materials.

Steelmaking coal is transported by rail from southeast British Columbia and northwest Alberta. At Neptune, it is loaded onto ships destined for steel mills around the world in countries like Korea, Japan, China, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Canada is one of the world’s leading overseas exporters of steelmaking coal, second only to Australia.


Potash is a naturally occurring, water soluble crop nutrient that is crucial to agriculture worldwide. It comes from mineral deposits approximately 1,000 meters below the earth’s surface that were formed millions of years ago by the evaporation of seas.

Over 90 per cent of potash is used in agriculture as a fertilizer. It can either be applied directly in the granular form in which it is shipped, or blended with nitrogen and phosphate. Commercial fertilizers, including those that you might buy to help your flowers or vegetables grow at home, typically contain three nutrients which help plants to grow in different, yet important, ways:

  • Nitrogen helps a plant’s leaves grow;
  • Phosphorus supports a plant’s root growth and flower and fruit development; and
  • Potassium (from potash) is a nutrient that improves the plant’s overall health.

Potash comes in a variety of colours, sizes and grades. Canpotex, one of the companies that owns Neptune, exports more than 15 grades of high-quality potash, the majority it through our terminal. These grades of potash are sourced from 10 different Saskatchewan mines owned by Nutrien and Mosaic.

Saskatchewan is the world’s largest producer of potash, responsible for about one quarter of the world’s supply. While potash is particularly important to nations with large and growing populations to feed, such as Brazil, China, India and Indonesia, it is imported by more than 100 countries worldwide and used to fertilize crops like rice, corn, sugar cane, and many other fruits and vegetables.

Interesting fact: Potash can also be used as road de-icer, where conditions permit. Although the melting power of potash is not as great as salt, potash is gaining acceptance as an environmentally-friendly alternative.