Teck Resources’ coal business raises questions about ESG successes 

Teck has four steelmaking coal operations in the Elk Valley of British Columbia, Canada. (Image courtesy of Teck.)

In fending off a hostile takeover bid from mining giant Glencore PLC (LON: GLEN) Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX: TECK.A, TECK.B) (NYSE: TECK), highlighted its successes with environmental, social and governance issues and urged investors to consider Glencore’s failures as a reason to spurn the Swiss company’s offer.

That strategy means Vancouver-based Teck can point to unsavoury episodes in Glencore’s past, including a bribery scheme that featured cash deliveries by private jets. But it also opens the door for shareholders, regulators and would-be partners to cast a critical eye on Teck’s own record.

Teck’s ESG record includes innovative programs – the company last year announced plans to become “nature positive” by 2030 by conserving or protecting at least three hectares for each hectare affected by its mining. But it also has long-standing problems, including in coal-mining operations in British Columbia’s Elk Valley. Teck has paid millions in fines related to pollution from those operations and is still working to stem the contamination of watersheds in the region.

“In terms of the legacy fines, the issues with the Columbia River, the selenium in the coal operations – in many ways, those are textbook examples of why ESG matters. They cost hundreds of millions in regulatory and financial penalties,” said Jamie Bonham, director of corporate engagement at ESG-specialist fund manager NEI Investments Inc., who lauds Teck’s overall approach.

“In some ways,” he said, “they are a constant reminder to the company of what not to do,”

Teck’s focus on sustainability has drawn top ratings from several ESG agencies. But it’s an open question whether those ratings translate into a stock-market premium and a reason for investors to favour the company’s independence, or if it suffers a discount from risks tied to environmental problems that have strained relations with local communities.

Teck is Canada’s biggest diversified miner, with a market value of about $30-billion. In February, it announced plans to split its business into two companies: Teck Metals Corp., a metals business that would produce materials such as copper and zinc, and Elk Valley Resources Ltd., a coal division that would produce steelmaking, or metallurgical, coal from Teck mines in Elk Valley in southeastern B.C.

Teck withdrew its restructuring proposal on April 26 after it failed to win shareholder support. Glencore has since said it remains interested in acquiring Teck. This month, a consortium led by Canadian mining veteran Pierre Lassonde proposed to buy Teck’s coal operations.

Before the split proposal was scrapped, The Globe and Mail reported that former B.C. premier John Horgan joined the board of the spin-off coal company, prompting B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau to call for amendments to the province’s conflict-of-interest legislation that would have prevented the move.

Mr. Horgan’s appointment took place as Indigenous peoples on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border call on the two countries to refer long-standing pollution concerns from Teck’s Elk Valley coal operations to the International Joint Commission, a bilateral panel established under the terms of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.

The Montana-based Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) is part of the Ktunaxa Nation, a six-member alliance of four First Nations in B.C. and two U.S. tribes that has been pushing for a reference to the IJC since 2012.

Asked if he had concerns about Glencore’s ESG standards, CSKT chairman Tom McDonald said he wasn’t familiar with the company. But he didn’t think any company could be much worse than Teck itself. “If Teck was in the United States, they’d be a bad actor,” Mr. McDonald said in an interview.

“They’d be labelled and treated as a bad-actor company. They wouldn’t be allowed to continue operations. They wouldn’t be allowed to create spin-off companies or shield themselves from any obligations from former activities.”

Mr. McDonald’s dim view of Teck is based on its record in the Elk Valley. Teck has operated there since the early 1990s and currently runs four mines in the region that together directly employ about 4,000 people.

A 2022 study by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Teck and the United Steelworkers concluded that Teck’s Elk Valley coal operations account for more than 30,000 jobs overall, including 12,820 in B.C., and contribute $1.5-billion in revenues each year to local, provincial and federal governments. The valley’s watershed contains Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir that crosses the Canada–U.S. border into Montana and feeds into the Columbia River system.

The coal operations result in huge amounts of waste rock that, when exposed to air and water, can leach selenium, nitrate and sulphate into nearby waterways and, eventually, across the border into the U.S. Selenium is an essential nutrient for humans, but beyond certain levels, can be toxic. In waterways, it can pass from plants to fish, causing reproductive problems.

In a 2016 report, Carol Bellringer, B.C.’s then-auditor-general, said the province’s environment ministry had noted dramatic annual increases of selenium in the watershed’s tributaries over 20 years of monitoring but “took no substantive action to change it” and had only recently begun efforts to control it.

Those efforts included the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, a 2014 agreement overseen by the provincial government meant to first stabilize, and eventually reverse, contaminant trends in valley waterways.

Under that plan, Teck has invested more than $1.2-billion on water-quality monitoring and research and construction of four treatment plants that are “effectively removing 95 per cent of selenium from treated water,” Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said in an e-mail. The company plans to invest an additional $750-million to expand treatment capacity with new facilities coming online “virtually every year for the next five years,” he added.

If Teck does spin off its coal business, the resulting company would remain committed to implementing the 2014 plan, Mr. Stannell said.

Critics say only a fraction of contaminated water is being treated, that selenium levels are trending upward in some boundary waters and that worrisome levels of selenium have been detected in several species of fish.

“I’ve come to see that plan as a failure, because it is not achieving what it was intended to achieve,” Erin Sexton, a senior scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station who has worked with the CSKT, said in an interview.

In March, U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a joint statement saying they intend to reach an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed, in partnership with tribal nations and Indigenous peoples.

The Ktunaxa Nation, meanwhile, continues to push for a reference to the IJC.

Against this backdrop, Teck has taken a number of steps to improve its appeal to global investment institutions that have avoided it because of ESG-related risks, especially those connected to climate change. In 2022, Teck sold its Alberta oil sands holdings to Suncor Energy Inc. for $1-billion.

This year’s proposed split by Teck was meant to hive off coal assets after the company had struggled to persuade the market that its metallurgical coal is less CO2-intensive than that of its competitors and is key to making the steel necessary in the energy transition. Some investors balked at the proposal because of its structure, which would have seen Teck’s metals division reap 90 per cent of the coal entity’s cash flow for up to 10 years.

If the coal assets remain under the Teck umbrella, some carbon-averse institutions may keep avoiding the stock, said Mr. Bonham, the ESG specialist.

“I would prefer somebody like a Teck running the operation than maybe someone else,” he said. “But I do think they’ll face that [market] pressure and it’s not going to go away.” That’s unfortunate, he said, because steel is necessary for electric vehicles, alternative energy equipment and infrastructure for expanding the low-carbon economy.

The company has said it is pursuing a new plan to separate base metal from coal operations.

Teck touts its successes in the ESG realm, including emissions targets, disclosure and other environmental and social measures, saying they are key to its business prospects. In its 2022 sustainability report, chief executive Jonathan Price noted that several rating agencies that focus on ESG give Teck top marks. In addition, the company was included on the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for the 13th straight year.

The company has set a goal to be carbon neutral in its own operations and in the electricity it buys by 2025, and fully net zero by 2050. In Institutional Shareholder Services’ recent proxy and voting recommendation report for Teck’s 2023 annual meeting, the agency noted that the company meets or exceeds standards in four key areas of climate-related disclosure. (It also recommended shareholders reject the coal split.)

But when it comes to value in the market, critics say the company’s prospects are most limited by a thorny governance issue: the dual-class share structure that keeps control of the company in the hands of its chairman emeritus, Norman B. Keevil, and his family, along with Sumitomo Metal Mining Co.

“Nothing can be done without the Class A shareholders agreeing to it,” said Laura Lau, chief investment officer at Brompton Funds, who rates governance as the top ESG-related concern for any company. “Whether it be splitting off the coal, whether it be addressing climate change, how Teck is run, who the CEO is – it’s all driven by the Class A shareholders.”

That also gives Mr. Keevil ultimate say over whether Teck can be acquired by a competitor such as Glencore. That power will remain for the next six years, after Teck shareholders approved a sunset clause last month that will eliminate the dual-class structure.

Some of Teck’s legacy issues, meanwhile, are expected to continue for decades to come. Teck has proposed expanding its coal-mining footprint in the Elk Valley with a project called Fording River Extension project, or FRX, raising alarm among those who say the company’s current operations have yet to clean up their act.

“There’s a legacy problem of mine contamination in the Elk Valley that needs to be addressed,” Ms. Sexton said.

“And so of course, we’re concerned about who’s actually going to address those legacy damages.”


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