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VIEW: Like whaling, BC's coal industry is best put behind us

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this unsolicited op-ed from David A. Green and Kevin Washbrook, and we offer it for your consideration. During the election season, we'll post various perspectives as we receive them on The Tyee's Election Hook, labelled clearly as "VIEW."]

Recent feel-good statements by the coal industry have reminded us of an earlier industry in B.C.: whaling.

Whaling also provided "indispensable" resources, such as oil for lamplight and baleen for corsets and shirt collars. Temporary foreign workers -- Norwegian harpooners -- were brought in because there weren't enough Canadians trained in the industry. Whaling had a multiplier effect on the B.C. economy: it created jobs for barrel makers, ship builders and suppliers.

The most telling parallel: whaling proponents didn't see a downside to their industry either. They were deaf to appeals to responsibility and ethical obligation. Coal emits the most greenhouse gases of all fossil fuels, whether used to generate electricity or make steel (steel making, largely because of coal inputs, accounts for one-tenth of global climate-warming emissions).

B.C. is the biggest exporter of coal in Canada; emissions released abroad from our exported coal equal the emissions released here at home. B.C. plans to develop more than 10 new coal mines and wants to double coal exports. Proposals under review would make Metro Vancouver the biggest coal exporter in North America.

Why is B.C., with its stated "green goals," intent on expanding its coal footprint? To paraphrase the Americans, "It's the economy, stupid." The market, so goes the argument, demands our coal and use of our ports; a conflict between our ethical and economic interests is unavoidable. This argument, of course, is nonsense.

Coal prices have yet to account for damage done to health and climate. Imagine running a furniture company using wood from the factory building itself to make the product. We could sell furniture cheaply, expanding employment and sales, but only until the building collapsed. Not paying the true cost of wood would be short-sighted. The same goes for coal.

Input prices are the other side of the ledger. BC Hydro subsidizes energy costs for new coal mines, distorting the market and drawing labour and capital from alternative industries.

Federal policy on Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) creates more subsidies. A Chinese company mining in B.C. wants to import Chinese miners who, under TFW rules, can be paid 15 per cent less than Canadians.

The company claims the skills aren't available locally. But unions have gone to court arguing specifically that they do exist or that workers could be trained for them. Really what the firm means is that they can't get the skills at the wages they are willing to pay, and the project could be unviable if they have to pay more. But if that's true then we as a society shouldn't want this project to proceed: only by undercutting Canadian wages could we get around the fact that the workers are more valued somewhere else in the economy.

The usual response? Energy and labour subsidies "jump start" industry, generating profit that benefits B.C. Again, without considering the environmental cost of coal, this is nonsense. No one benefits in the long run if we destroy our climate and health.

Fortuitously, demographic trends can facilitate the phase out of coal mines, right now.

The BC Mining Association says nearly half of the province's mining labour force will retire over the next 10 years. This is an opportunity to wind down coal mining in B.C. while minimizing impacts on communities. In fairness, workers should be compensated and re-trained; since less than one per cent of B.C. workers are in mining and only a fraction of those in coal, such compensation is viable.

The bottom line: economics and ethics tell us we should get out of coal.

In one season, B.C.'s whaling industry destroyed almost the entire Strait of Georgia humpback whale population. After 100 years, it's only just begun to recover. The B.C. coal industry helps destroy our climate, and its recovery will take much longer. Let's learn from our past and leave coal behind.

Here are some places for our provincial and federal governments to start:

First, immediately ban the export of U.S. coal out of B.C. This brings no benefit to the province and profits few.

Second, place a moratorium on new coal mines.

Third, apply the carbon tax to B.C.'s coal exports, or only export to countries that effectively capture and store steel making emissions. Either will spur innovations in steel making and reduce demand for coal.

Fourth, initiate the orderly phase-out of existing coal mines in B.C., and a just transition for coal dependent communities. Implement training for green jobs and transition funds for mining communities, financed by increased carbon tax revenues.

B.C. is at a crossroads. Governments can lock us into a destructive dependency on continued coal extraction. Or they can start transitioning, while we have time, towards a sustainable economy.

Let's hope the government elected next May has the courage to follow the right path.

David A. Green is a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics. Kevin Washbrook is the director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.

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