A conversation with port CEO Robin Silvester

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Robin Silvester | CEO Port Metro Vancouver
Image by: Adam Blasberg

The CEO of Canada’s largest port faces one of the most challenging years in the authority’s history

Port Metro Vancouver is running out of land—over 40 acres of available land in the Lower Mainland is converted into housing each year—and according to Robin Silvester, the authority’s president and CEO, the consequences for the regional economy will be dire. Real estate—or a lack thereof—is just one of many issues facing the 48-year-old Silvester, who is tasked with setting the long-term strategy and overseeing the day-to-day operations of North America’s fourth-largest port. Silvester enters his seventh year on the job in March—and according to the London-born, Cambridge-educated engineer (who previously served as CEO of P&O Ports Canada, DP World Ltd. and British Steel), the job has become ever more challenging as the port’s activities become more contested. 
 
You’ve been warning about a shortage of industrial land for half a decade now. What kind of action are you seeing from government?
I would say, unfortunately, entirely the wrong results. If you look at what’s happened since Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy was put in place, we’ve seen the industrial land zoned to other uses. We have four per cent of the industrial land in the Lower Mainland in Port Moody, the IOCO [Imperial Oil Co.] lands, designated as a special study area with a view to it being converted to other uses—that’s four per cent of the land base where 23 per cent of the jobs in the Lower Mainland happen. It’s not a 20- or 30-year problem; it’s a five- to 10-year problem, and it’s got to be addressed otherwise we risk the Lower Mainland ceasing to be an economically viable hub and ceasing to be sustainable.
 
There’s been a lot of public opposition to the way in which the port assessed the thermal coal export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks. How was the scope of the port’s environmental process defined?
We have a hugely robust environmental assessment process. At the start, the opposition focused entirely on coal, the commodity, and then searched around for other issues to try and stop the projects. That’s fine—it’s a democratic society, they have a right to try and do that—but what I found very frustrating was how they willfully ignored the robust work being done in the environmental assessment we had. There was a very detailed air modelling, a very detailed human health risk assessment, and I’m confident that we have ensured that there will be no negative impacts as a result of that project.
 
One of the criticisms is that the port did not account for climate change in the environmental assessment process despite doing so in other activities—such as when it plans new construction along the shoreline.
 
It’s not a fair criticism. Under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which are the rules that we have to follow, there’s not a requirement to consider climate change as a result of the use of the commodity being traded. 
 
In the winter of 2014, the port was paralyzed for months by labour action on the part of truckers who were complaining about traffic congestion and low pay. Have the factors that led to that labour strife been resolved?
For the most part, yes. But is it completely resolved? No. We’re following through with a process that the federal government and the provincial government in particular have implemented. That process is bringing a lot more stability to the trucking sector, with new regulations and a new commissioner, Corinn Bell, to oversee those regulations. And we’ve got a lot of improvements taking place: all the trucks serving the gateway now use GPS, and we know from the GPS that the turnaround in the port terminals averages between 30 and 40 minutes; that was one of the big flashpoints, with truckers saying it was taking two hours to get a load. So that’s been addressed: turn times are now best-in-class in North America.
 
Do you have any specific policy requests for the new Trudeau government?
They’ve laid out an ambitious [infrastructure] agenda—and as we’re strong advocates of these types of things, we’re really pleased to see it and we want to see it happen quickly in the Lower Mainland. But when we look at the environmental commitments they’ve made, I think there’s a huge need to restore public faith in the environmental assessment process. 
 
Has the role of the port become more controversial since you started in 2009?
Yes, I would say so—but also there are bigger opportunities, which makes it exciting. We have a huge opportunity in the Lower Mainland as Canada’s face to Asia. And we’re Canada’s artery for trade. If we weren’t growing and if the things we were doing weren’t getting attention, we wouldn’t have the same opportunities we have today.
 
THE PORT'S TOP DESTINATIONS OF OUTBOUND CARGO* THE PORT'S TOP DESTINATIONS OF INBOUND CARGO*
CHINA JAPAN S.  KOREA INDIA CHINA USA S. KOREA MOROCCO
24 million 16 million 12 million 5 million 7 million 2 million 1.5 million 915,000

*in metric tonnes, by country in 2014
Source: Port Metro Vancouver


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