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South of Border, Hot Debate Involves BC Coal Port Plans

Expansion for Asia export puts BC in middle of climate, jobs fight in Washington state.

David P Ball 7 Mar

David P. Ball is a freelance writer and photojournalist on Coast Salish territories.

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A surge of US coal trains could soon be rolling into BC. Photo by Jason Gallant in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

Environmental groups in British Columbia are fully mobilized in the fight against Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's TransMountain oil sand pipeline proposals.

But it might surprise many here to learn that just across the B.C.-Washington border, plans to move an older and even dirtier kind of fossil fuel are the focus of heated environmental concern, economic lobbying, and rising controversy over Canada’s role.

That product is coal -- and active plans would see millions of tons of the black stuff shipped through the Salish Sea from U.S. mines to Asian buyers.

"This is one of the very rare instances where Americans are more aware of a Canadian issue than Canadians are of an American issue," Eric de Place, policy director with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability research and advocacy group, told The Tyee. "There aren't many places where that happens!"

Considered by climate analysts to be the dirtiest greenhouse gas producer among all fossil fuels, but valued by industry as an essential fuel and steel-making catalyst, coal could soon be shipped from new terminals proposed for B.C.'s lower Mainland as well as in Washington and Oregon.

Currently most contentious in B.C. is Fraser Surrey Docks' hope to boost coal exports moving through its facility to a potential eight million metric tonnes a year. But a much larger proposal in Washington would export more than six times that amount -- up to 50 million tonnes a year -- through Cherry Point near Bellingham, a stones' throw from the Canadian border.

According to polls, relatively few British Columbians are even aware of the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal -- let alone the U.S, plans. But with a handful of projects vying for government approval on either side of the border, what moves through Canadian ports has become a sore point in an increasingly vociferous debate among our American neighbours.

"Washington State is affected by B.C.'s coal exports more than B.C. is impacted by Washington's," de Place explained. "That's a function of what is shipping through B.C. ports versus through U.S. ports. Folks who want Cherry Point have been saying, 'Look, if we don't build there, all the coal will just go to B.C. There's nothing you can do about the number of coal trains, or about coal dust -- it's all going to happen anyway. The only question is between Cherry Point or British Columbia.'"

Canada: rival or empty threat?

And while environmentalists deplore the whole idea of expanding coal shipments -- leading activist Kevin Washbrook of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change to campaign for a seat on Port Metro Vancouver's board in order to oppose the Fraser Docks plan -- some in Washington State see an economic opportunity that’s going to go to one place or the other.

In Seattle, a top official in the United Transportation Union (UTU), which boasts roughly 2,000 railroad engineers and other workers, told The Tyee that his union is supporting plans to dramatically boost coal export through the state -- despite opposition from anti-climate change activists.

"We don't deny that global warming is an issue," explained Herb Krohn, Washington State legislative director for the UTU. "We are environmentalists; we're concerned about environmental issues as well.

"But we understand the reality of our economic situation is that this coal will be exported, if countries that demand it will buy it. And if they don't buy it in North America, they'll buy it elsewhere."

Krohn said that his union, and other workers in the sector, are deeply concerned about the increasingly competitive nature of shipping, as U.S. ports face growing economic challenges.

"We want to make sure we preserve our jobs," he said. "If we stopped exporting coal today in the U.S., we'd not prevent countries in Asia from burning one lump of it. But we would lose the American jobs -- and not only the mining jobs, but the transport jobs too."

Recent polls in Washington State show that opinion is deeply divided over its Cherry Point proposal, with just over half of people surveyed supporting the project. And as the debate rages on the streets and in the newspapers, advocates on both sides of the controversy have brought Canada's name -- and the terminal proposed by Fraser Surrey Docks -- into their arguments.

On the pro-coal side, the key voice is the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a group encompassing coal companies, unions, chambers of commerce and other export-advocates.

"Around the issue of Canada, you'll get a lot of different opinions," explained Lauri Hennessey, spokesperson for the Alliance. "Some people think you guys are maxed out and can't take anything else. For everyone who says that, someone on the other side is saying that Canadian ports are going through changes to increase their capacity.

"We believe, if coal doesn't go through our ports here, it will indeed go through ports in Canada."

Closer to the border, Julie Trimingham, founder of the non-profit has heard the same arguments about losing jobs northward.

"I'm close to the [proposed] terminal, and the Canadian border," Trimingham told The Tyee from her home in Bellingham. "I'm actually a dual citizen; I've got a personal interest in all this trans-border activity."

For her, job losses to Canada aren’t a worry -- just an empty threat. "The proponents have been saying, 'If we don't build this, the trains will come through anyway -- so we might as well reap the benefits and get the jobs,'" she says. "But it's not true. The trains won't go through to Canada anyway."

De Place agrees. He believes that while B.C. has "some capacity" to export American coal, even with the proposed expansion of Lower Mainland ports, "it is pretty darn clear there's not a lot of spare capacity through B.C. right now.

"There's no space for anywhere near that much in B.C.," he added, "unless you replace all the current coal going out [there] with low-quality, cheaper coal from Wyoming."

Unsurprisingly, the railway that would move the coal in question to one place or the other supports both the Cherry Point and Fraser Surrey Docks applications. But on the matter of B.C. versus Washington, BNSF isn't taking sides. According to a spokesperson for the railway firm -- owned by billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, and the target of a daylong track blockade in White Rock last May -- the arguments are largely moot.

"It is important to note that freight rail traffic will increase with or without coal export," Courtney Wallace told The Tyee by email. "The Pacific Northwest’s economy is built on trade and exports, and in Washington state alone, freight-dependent business supports more than 40 percent of the state’s jobs."

Moreover, the BNSF spokesperson pointed out, "Rail carriers are required to provide rail service on reasonable request by shippers of commodities like coal." In other words: when the coal comes, the railway will be obliged to move it.

Regulatory differences

Meanwhile, the projects north and south are proceeding through the stages of environmental impact review. There are clear differences in the approval process.

Climate activists in B.C. have decried Port Metro Vancouver's process for reviewing the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal as meaningless. By contrast, their counterparts to the south have little negative to say about the U.S. process.

"While the impacts to local communities are fundamentally the same, the regulatory processes and opportunities for public input are pretty different from place to place," de Place explains. "In the U.S., it's a pretty robust permitting process before things can be built."

On this point, the pro-coal Alliance agrees, pointing to at least seven public events held so far in Washington around the Cherry Point proposal.

By contrast, "outreach" to the B.C. public about the proposed expansion of Fraser Surrey Docks involved sending several thousand glossy promotional fliers to neighbouring residents. In response to a Tyee inquiry, Port Metro Vancouver -- which holds final authority to approve or reject the project, after completion of environmental reviews -- confirmed that it considered the mailing a "satisfactory" form of public engagement.

"Fraser Surrey Docks has certainly done quite a bit of community consultation around their proposed project," PMV spokesperson Patricia MacNeil said in an earlier interview with The Tyee. "There's no expectation that there's going to be any further public engagement activities at this point in time."

De Place just laughs at that. "They're not allowed to do that here," he said. "That wouldn't be considered 'consultation' -- that's just telling someone what you're going to do. That's like me 'consulting' my neighbours about building an airport in my backyard when the first plane lands."

"On the U.S. side," de Place adds, "there are more built-in opportunities for public engagement and review. There are robust opportunities for engagement. They have to answer substantive questions about proposals, and they're legally required to consider alternatives. They're required to go through some meaningful steps."

Still, a major bone of contention on both sides of the border is the scope of what regulators will consider.

Canadian environmentalists say Port Metro Vancouver should consider the long-term impacts of products passing through its facilities; the Port insists its mandate extends only to port operations.

Likewise anti-coal activists in the U.S. are pushing for authorities there to further broaden the lens through which they evaluate "environmental impacts." On this point however, the pro-coal Alliance and Seattle’s Sightline diverge.

"I think they should evaluate the climate impact of coal," de Place agrees. "We're talking about 150 million tonnes of coal exports to move out of Oregon and Washington. That's a staggering amount. That’s close to how much the U.S. has exported in an entire year through all its ports.

"There's evidence of serious air pollution coming back across the Pacific from the combustion of coal in Asia. That should be on the table -- these are real environmental impacts. That's the purpose of having a review process, in my view."

While de Place insists it is "theoretically possible" for regulators to consider such issues under U.S. law, industry and unions see that as impractical over-reach.

"Having an area-wide environmental impact statement, or taking everything into consideration, is unprecedented," the Alliance’s Hennessey objects. "It would have huge, huge repercussions for industries in the Pacific Northwest. For example, Boeing. Are you going to look at a single airplane part for its plane, and the entire journey that part makes – every town it goes through, to where it ends up?"


Despite polls showing that public opinion is split, each side in the American battle over Cherry Point is forecasting eventual victory. Coal proponents point out that the polls lean slightly in their favour. Environmentalists see signs that people are waking up to the clear and present danger of climate change.

"What polls are showing us is that when we get out there, explain it, answer questions, and calm people's fears... most people find these projects are a good idea," Hennessey says. She insists that anti-coal forces are fanning the public’s fears, "many of them inflamed by misinformation."

De Place throws the charge right back. Hennessy’s Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports is, he claims, is merely a cleverly disguised "astroturf" group, funded by the very companies standing to benefit from ramped-up coal exports through projects like Cherry Point. "It's basically [Cherry Point proponent] SSA Marine," de Place told The Tyee.

SSA Marine did not respond to Tyee’s request for an interview. But Hennessey scoffed at the suggestion that her group was an "astroturf" organization, hiding its industry backers behind a populist sheen.

Her group doesn't claim to be unconnected to coal, Hennessey noted.

"I reject the idea we're an astroturf organization," she says. "An astroturf organization would be based far away, which is not true for our organization.

"We've been working and scoping this issue for months. I've worked with a lot of labour guys. We're actually a very active organization that's trying to get the word out about these projects. Our alliance does have some members who belong to the coal industry. But for every one of those, we have many more who are labour unions, the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], the grain council, BNSF."

Whether B.C. is cast as a rival for coal-hauling jobs, or as an alternate route for the coal industry hoping to avoid the extra red tape of consultation and impact statements south of the border, the argument over coal is burning fiercely on Washington’s side of the border -- while here it’s barely smouldering.

In our next report on the cross-border coal controversy, we'll look at why some people think the two debates -- one hot, the other hardly noticed -- should really be one, involving concerned citizens on both sides of the 49th Parallel.  [Tyee]

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