Some of North America’s leading climate scientists and researchers have signed a letter asking the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to delay making any decisions on two proposals to sharply increase coal exports.
The founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben; UBC professor emeritus Bill Rees; NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies head James Hansen; and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change researchers Andrew Weaver and Mark Jaccard are among the dozens of signatories requesting that “explicit consideration of the global climate change impacts” be included in the decision-making process.
Their letter focuses on proposals by Fraser Surrey Docks and Neptune Terminals to export up to eight million metric tonnes and six million metric tonnes of coal per year, respectively.
“This will bring the Port Authority’s coal export capacity up to a staggering 55 to 59 Mt per year, making it the largest coal exporter in North America,” the letter states. “Converted into global warming emissions, this volume of exported coal will release, when burned, more than 100 Mt of CO2 emissions per year, a volume of global warming pollution much larger than all the emissions within BC each year, and more than that associated with oil exports from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.”
Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank, which is the largest coal shipper under the port authority’s jurisdiction, was responsible for the shipment of a record 27.3 million tonnes of coal last year.
Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, told the Georgia Straight by phone that the proposed expansion of coal-exporting facilities is extremely risky. He noted that events like Superstorm Sandy—a one-in-1,000-year occurrence—are likely to happen more frequently as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
“We’re coming up against a cliff here,” he said in reference to climate change. “This stuff just can’t be built if you’re legitimately considering the impacts to the planet.”
In a phone interview with the Straight, Patricia MacNeil, spokesperson for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority—which operates as Port Metro Vancouver—maintained that the port doesn’t decide which commodities Canada will trade. “Our mandate is to facilitate trade in a safe and sustainable manner that has as little impact on the environment and community as possible,” she said, noting that the port’s operations are carbon-neutral.
When asked if the port—as the regulator—considers the impact increased coal-exporting capacity will have on the climate, MacNeil responded by emphasizing that the review process ensures there are no “significant adverse effects as a result of the project”.
The port’s mandate is to “operate with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians”. Those who signed the letter allege that the two coal-export proposals are not in Canadians’ best interest and will “hasten the onset of dangerous climate change, which poses a clear threat to human health and well-being”.
“We ask that you acknowledge that you cannot legitimately claim that these projects have broad public support, because you have not adequately informed the general public about their existence nor sufficiently invited the public to provide comment on their impacts,” they state.
MacNeil, on the other hand, insisted that the port authority’s project-permit review process is “top-notch”, with experts from a variety of disciplines available to review specific aspects. Proponents are also required to seek community input, she added. This is summarized in a report, which can lead to mitigation measures being implemented.
In addition, MacNeil stated that municipalities and First Nations are consulted, and the public is welcome to send its concerns in writing to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. In its regulatory capacity, the port authority does not hold public meetings. “I think it’s important to know the review we do is very comprehensive,” she said.
The port authority is reviewing an application by Neptune Terminals for a new railcar dumper, conveyers, and a longer shiploader boom.
Fraser Surrey Docks hopes to develop a “direct-transfer coal facility” to handle up to four million metric tonnes per year—with a potential to rise to eight million metric tonnes per year over the long term. Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, which is owned by U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett’s holding company, would bring the coal in to be loaded onto 8,000 deadweight-tonne barges. They would be towed to Texada Island. The coal would be stored there and then placed on deep-sea vessels for export to overseas markets.
Washbrook explained that communities along the U.S. west coast have been effective opponents of coal-port developments, often basing their arguments around noise, dust, health, and traffic concerns. “Meanwhile, BNSF is quietly adding capacity north of the border,” he noted.
The port authority is governed by an unelected board of directors, most of whom are appointed on the recommendation of port users. The decision to approve a permit is made at the senior staff level, though board members are kept informed.
Washbrook noted that the port authority is under no obligation to make changes in response to input from municipalities or First Nations. “So here, we have this quasi-Crown corporation that basically has complete autonomy to make huge decisions,” he declared.