“Seems like it’s a problem we probably have to get used to,” said conservative CNN commentator Erick Erickson about climate change, “as opposed to something we can cure.” In a segment lampooning the curious habit of conservatives rejecting the fact of human-caused global warming only to eventually claim it’s too late to do anything about it, Stephen Colbert summed it up well: “Erickson has finally hit the fifth stage of conservative climate change grief: denial, denial, denial, denial, and acceptance.”
This mystifying, and disingenuous, change of heart is visible practically everywhere now—including in the debate over coal. Terminal ports around the Pacific Northwest are planning on shipping coal abroad, particularly to China. And the rationalization is, basically, that it’s too late to do anything about it—so we might as well sell it off and get the tax revenues and the jobs before someone else does.
“Proponents of the coal export terminals,” notes economist Thomas M. Power in a paper entitled The Greenhouse Gas Impact of Exporting Coal from the West Coast, “consistently claim that the decision to authorize them will have no effect on the total amount of coal that is burned globally, and hence on the global climate. In their view, opening up the West Coast to the export of...coal will only change the source of the coal burned in Asia—not the total amount.”
And this is precisely the same argument being made in British Columbia. The first of two coal port expansion projects in the Lower Mainland was approved without consultation in late January by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (Port Metro Vancouver). It more than doubles the amount of coal leaving North Vancouver’s Neptune Bulk Terminals, from 8.5 million to 18.5 million tonnes. The second port expansion project at Fraser Surrey Docks, expected to ship up to four million metric tons of coal brought in from the U.S., is currently under review.
Combined, the two terminals will be the continent’s “largest exporter of global-warming pollution” according to Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change. Trapped in all that coal which these ports intend to ship abroad is the equivalent of 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. By comparison, the Northern Gateway pipeline, which has received far more attention and condemnation, will produce 80 to 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
“We’re strengthening our role as a key link in Canada’s Pacific Gateway and as an important contributor to our local and provincial economy,” Port Metro Vancouver’s website states. But this is inaccurate and misleading.
“Suffice to say, coal ports don’t do much for local economies, in the port towns themselves or on the routes to and from them,” wrote David Roberts in an article for Grist. “Rail traffic would radically increase, crowding out other rail-using commodities, cutting towns in half for hours every day, and leaving a coating of toxic coal dust everywhere. Coal ports employ very few people, but are loud and polluted with diesel fumes and coal dust, which renders waterfronts unsuitable for other commercial or community uses.” Coal ports will do more to decimate than to accumulate local jobs.
To the Erick Ericksons of the world—to those who would say that if Port Metro Vancouver doesn’t export the coal, somebody else will and profit while doing so—Thomas M. Power’s article responds. The “proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest will result in more coal consumption in Asia and undermine China’s progress towards more efficient power generation and usage. Decisions the Northwest makes now will impact Chinese energy habits for the next half-century; the lower coal prices afforded by Northwest coal exports encourage burning coal and discourage the investments in energy efficiency that China has already undertaken.” Or, to put it simply, if we keep the coal where it belongs—in the ground—for long enough, we might help encourage investments in renewable energy abroad. There will no longer be a market receptive to competing exporters.
What we do matters. We can’t keep pretending, after so much time spent in denial, that we have no other choice but to export coal. There’s still time and we still have, before us, possibilities.