When Washingtonians voted to legalize marijuana and gay marriage in November, some British Columbians marvelled at the abrupt left turn. Others worried over how it might affect the provincial economy, which has been supplying both commodities to residents of the state. As it’s turning out, a more immediate impact has arisen from the election of an environmentalist governor and growing resistance to the vision of some to greatly expand Washington’s coal export infrastructure.
“This is the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint, certainly during my lifetime,” Jay Inslee said in his first press conference as governor, referring to the approval process over six major port projects proposed for Oregon and Washington. With some of those plans now thrown into doubt, Fraser Surrey Docks applied for permission to ship coal mined in Wyoming out of its facility near the heart of Metro Vancouver just a few days after the election. If that and other planned expansions go ahead, Vancouver, which has visions of becoming the world’s greenest city, could instead increase its capacity to export the black stuff by almost half, becoming North America’s largest coal port.
As with so many other environmental ironies lately, the backdrop is America’s sudden, fracking-induced energy self-sufficiency. U.S. domestic coal consumption has dropped precipitously as utilities turn to cheap natural gas to generate electricity. That leaves China, still dependent on the dirtier fuel, as almost the last customer left standing.
But the coal has to get there, which means increased rail traffic, expanded port facilities and more ships plying the Salish Sea. More important, climate activists argue, the export of surplus coal negates America’s own reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, simply pushing the problem offshore. In Seattle, noisy crowds of up to 2,500 have shown up at regulatory hearings to denounce the idea.
Wyoming’s thermal coal would be burned for electricity production, making it a greater environmental pariah than B.C.’s own coal, which is mostly used for making steel. But even the metallurgical coal that has become one of the province’s economic stalwarts is facing increased public scrutiny. One of the protesters arrested at a railroad blockade in Delta, B.C., last year was Mark Jaccard, a resource economist at Simon Fraser University and former adviser to B.C.’s Liberal government who contends that no distinction can be made between thermal and metallurgical coal as long as their use remains inefficient. Until carbon-capture methods are put in place, he insists, both have to be considered dirty.
Others, however, question the port neighbours’ right, as Vancouver Sun columnist Craig McInnes put it, to act as “an ethical troll under the bridge to foreign markets” for industries spanning Canada and now the U.S. And Port Metro Vancouver, which reports to the federal government, has made it clear its mandate in reviewing terminal projects is to consider only local environmental concerns, not global issues like climate change.
Further, the recently announced expansions at both Fraser Surrey Docks and North Vancouver’s Neptune Bulk Terminals (the latter already approved) require no new terminal construction. (Westshore Terminals in Delta, already the largest single coal dock in North America, is also nearing the end of a six-year, $100-million expansion.) As such, the regulatory hurdles to greater coal exports are minor compared to those faced by the proposed terminals south of the border.