To the uninitiated, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about over an application to ship coal through Fraser Surrey Docks in suburban Vancouver. Port Metro Vancouver, which approved the project on Aug. 21, already moves some 40 million tonnes of coal a year. Fraser Surrey’s new facility would add just four million to that total. The capital spend is just $15 million; the jobs directly created, just 25. With coal trains already coursing through the Lower Mainland to the much larger Westshore and Neptune terminals, it’s not surprising the environmental report behind the port authority’s decision found no appreciable impacts on the health of area residents.
The significance of the proposal is global, not local. It’s about where the coal comes from and what it will be used for. Almost all the coal shipped off Canada’s West Coast since we began exporting coal to Asia in volume around 35 years ago has been metallurgical (or coking) coal mined in Canada. This is an ingredient of steel, with no practical substitute.
The coal destined for Fraser Surrey Docks, however, will be thermal coal, to be burned in power plants to generate electricity. Most of it will come from mines in Wyoming and Montana that find themselves without domestic customers since the shale gas revolution, combined with emissions control regulation, drove utilities in the U.S. to shut down coal-fired plants and fire up cleaner-burning natural gas plants. More than any other factor, this trend has helped the U.S. cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10% since 2007.
The really compelling argument for disallowing the coal supply chain through Fraser Surrey Docks is that it effectively undoes that achievement in emissions reduction if the same hydrocarbons end up being burned and vented into the atmosphere in China, where if anything environmental protections are more lax. However this consideration is not within the scope of Port Metro Vancouver’s regulatory mandate, nor should it be unduly influenced by local activists motivated by the maxim to think globally and act locally. It’s a matter that should be confronted at the national and multilateral level. Unfortunately, no one there wants to take it on.