Misguided Attempts to Derail Coal Exports

Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank has been exporting coal since 1970.

Why do opponents suddenly raise fears of coal dust and noisy trains when Vancouver has been exporting Coal for 60 years?

We seem to embrace public hysteria now when it comes to any discussion of what this country is prepared to export, or even just trans-ship, through its major seaports.

Take coal, for example. Port Metro Vancouver has already approved expansion of existing coal shipment facilities at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver, and is considering further expansions at Fraser Surrey Docks. If it all goes ahead, Vancouver will become North America’s largest coal export port.

The economic benefits of this activity are significant. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the province’s coal industry is worth $3.2 billion to the province’s GDP and supports 26,000 jobs. Expanding exports through Vancouver will add to that, although not proportionally; a lot of the new coal will come from Wyoming.

But opposition from special interest groups is fierce. At least four of them have sprung up, joining the usual environmental groups whose opposition can always be counted on.

These opponents are putting forward a slew of arguments that range from more noisy train whistles to a metropolitan region covered with coal dust to a huge impact on global warming as all this coal is burned. Existing coal exports are mostly metallurgical coal, but the proposed expansion for Fraser Surrey Docks would involve thermal coal from the U.S. state of Wyoming.

There are several troubling aspects to the opposition campaign now mounted, and the risks being put forward as reasons to stymie these expansion plans.

First, coal has been exported through Vancouver for nearly 60 years. In my time in the Vancouver region (35 years now) I have regularly commuted by two of them–Port Moody and North Vancouver–and not once can I ever recall having to wash any coal dust off my car (or my motorcycle). Why is this suddenly an issue?

Second, if you start halting fossil fuel exports because of green house gas emissions spewed out by the end user, then we’d better shut off all the natural gas and crude oil exports to the U.S. and at the same time eliminate our own use of fossil fuels. And while we’re at it, better completely reinvent our economy because it will cease to exist.

Finally, there is now a clamour for Port Metro Vancouver to hold public hearings into these expansion projects. Bad idea. The port is like a common carrier; it can’t decide on its own stick what it will or won’t ship, either in or out. That’s the responsibility of senior governments whose mandate is to determine public policy. The port does seek public input into new and expanded facilities, but there is no legal requirement to conduct a public hearing, nor should there be.

The recent provincial election saw an unpredicted swing of voters to the pro-development B.C. Liberal Party because of a general recognition that you can’t say no to everything. Adrian Dix learned that lesson the hard way. Environmental risks around coal exports can be mitigated–they have been for 60 years.


 Don Whiteley is a natural resources writer based in North Vancouver.