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VIEW: Unions, please rethink support for expanded Surrey coal exports

Declining domestic demand (due to cheaper natural gas and stiffer regulations) and heavy opposition to coal exports on the U.S. West Coast have increased pressure to export American thermal coal through Metro Vancouver ports. Those proposals have faced stiff opposition north of the border too -- but not from some unions.

Recently the ILWU, U.S.W, IUOE and the BC Building Trades co-authored an op-ed that was critical of Metro Vancouver community, local government and health authority concerns about potential risks posed by plans to export up to eight million tonnes per year of U.S. coal from a new port in Surrey.

After being mined by one or more of the big U.S. coal companies working in the Powder River Basin (PRB), a vast area of coal deposits in the U.S. Northwest, that coal would be delivered by the BNSF railway through White Rock, South Surrey and Delta to the Fraser River. From there it would be towed in open barges to Texada Island, where it would be transferred to ocean-going vessels for shipment to Asian power plants.

The unions' opinion piece also offered general statements of support for the "good, family-supporting jobs" that B.C.'s own metallurgical coal industry provides to union members. ILWU president Mark Gordienko later authored a follow up that made the same arguments.

One might assume that the unions defend this proposed new coal port on the Fraser River because existing unionized jobs are at risk, but that is not the case. In fact, the proposal is only projected to create 25 new jobs at Fraser Surrey Docks.

Those 25 potential jobs have to be weighed against the overwhelming opposition to this proposal. Close to 30,000 people have signed petitions against the project, citing health, environment and climate risks. Metro Vancouver voted to oppose the project outright, and 12 other local and regional governments have either opposed it or called for an independent and comprehensive health impact assessment prior to approval.

Independent health and air quality experts, local governments and our provincial health authorities rejected the Port's EIA of the Surrey coal port project, noting "significant deficiencies, incorrect assumptions and superficial analysis in several aspects of the EIA." Three-thousand-and-five-hundred community members sent comments opposing the project to the Port during the EIA comment period (in contrast to just six comments sent in favour).

Presumably, many of those in Metro Vancouver who are opposed to this project also work in good, family-supporting jobs, many of them unionized.

Perhaps instead the unions support this project as an act of solidarity with union brothers and sisters working in the coal fields of the Powder River Basin. This appears unlikely, as a blog post out today from Clark Williams-Derry at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute points out that the majority of thermal coal mines in the PRB don't employ unionized-labour.

We don't know which particular PRB coal companies are backing plans for a new coal port in Surrey because the proponent, Fraser Surrey Docks, hasn't made that information public.

The three unionized coal mines that operate in the PRB -- Decker, Absaloka and Rosebud -- are not considered likely export candidates by Sightline because of their high costs and the low prices their coal receives in Asia. Also, in the case of Decker, a decline in economically viable reserves may soon lead to closure.

The backer might be Cloud Peak, which ships coal from PRB mines through Westshore Terminals in Delta (Westshore currently exports about eight million tonnes of U.S. thermal coal each year -- nearly a third of their volume*). Cloud Peak is part owner of Decker (it's complicated), but doesn't operate any other unionized mines in the PRB.

It may be Arch Coal, another PRB player that has exported through B.C. Arch accompanied Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on a visit to Metro Vancouver last year when he checked in on progress at Fraser Surrey Docks. Arch doesn't operate unionized mines in the PRB either.

Even more concerning, in 2008 Arch Coal spun off assets representing a large proportion of its pension obligations to a coal company subsequently acquired by Patriot Coal. Another coal industry giant, Peabody,** spun off assets representing 40 per cent of its pension obligations to Patriot a year earlier.

Patriot subsequently filed for bankruptcy, citing, in part, "unsustainable labour-related legacy liabilities." When launching a lawsuit against Patriot in an attempt to preserve his members' pension benefits, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, described Patriot as a company "set up to fail." UMWA lost their lawsuit, and Patriot went on to cut pensions and benefits for 13,000 workers and retirees.

The big coal companies operating in the PRB do not come across as allies of organized labour, nor as advocates for the kind of employment benefits that protect families and strengthen communities.

So why then are some unions standing up for U.S. companies that want to export their thermal coal out of Surrey?

It's possible they worry that a decision against the proposal is somehow a referendum on B.C.'s own metallurgical coal industry. In other words, if we set the wrong precedent by saying no to this proposal, even though it faces overwhelming opposition, then we start down a slippery slope that ends with the shuttering of all coal mines in B.C. It's an implausible scenario that ignores the fundamental differences between metallurgical and thermal coal.

B.C.'s metallurgical coal industry is an important economic driver in the province, particularly in the east Kootenays where it does provide unionized, family-supporting jobs. Currently, metallurgical coal is also an irreplaceable element in the production of new steel. With wise use and proper allocation, this valuable resource can help us in the transition to a low carbon economy.

Of course, use of metallurgical coal does contribute to climate change, and its transport and handling in our communities requires careful assessment and management of health and environmental impacts, but in the absence of substitutes, demand for this essential product isn't going to go away anytime soon.

On the other hand, thermal coal, used in power production, is the single greatest contributor to climate change, a significant source of deadly local pollution in Asia, and a contributor to trans-ocean pollution as well. B.C. banned the use of thermal coal for power production in 2007, and today Premier Christy Clark touts the export of B.C. liquified natural gas as a way to help Asia end its dependence on this dirty and outdated fuel source.

The International Energy Agency says that if we are to avoid a climate disaster, 80 per cent of remaining thermal coal needs to stay in the ground. It's safe to assume that the remaining 20 per cent can be mined, exported and burned without building a new coal port on the Fraser River in Surrey.

The proposal to export U.S. thermal coal from Fraser Surrey Docks should be judged on its own merits. On that basis, it is found sorely lacking. This project is not in the best interest of our communities, nor does it do the rest of the world a favour.

Judging from the positions taken by U.S. coal companies operating in the PRB, exporting U.S. coal from Surrey doesn't appear to be in the interest of organized labour either.

*Signal Peak is another U.S. coal company which has exported coal through Westshore Terminals in Delta. However, its mine, Bull Mountain, isn't in the PRB. It isn't unionized, either.

** Peabody Coal mines in the PRB: non-unionized.

Kevin Washbrook is the director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.

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