February 4, 2019

Coal is Still the Dirty Little Secret at Port Metro Vancouver


Intrepid Price Tags editor Ken Ohrn has reported on Port Metro Vancouver’s cancellation of  the permit to expand the Fraser Surrey Docks to ship coal to Asian markets. Thermal coal used to produce electricity represents 75 percent of all coal shipped globally, and the fact that Port Metro Vancouver has not fulfilled the conditions for the Fraser Surrey Docks expansion permit is a good sign. But is  Port Metro Vancouver’s cancelling the Fraser Surrey Docks expansion  part of the plan to  consolidate a push forward for the controversial  terminal two (P2) in Delta’s Roberts Bank? Who is overseeing the Port’s expansion plans and do they take in consideration market trends and sustainability?

I have  written before about Vancouver’s  dirty little secret~since American environmentalists blocked a new export terminal in Oregon, massive coal train shipments come to Vancouver docks, now known as  North America’s largest coal port. In fact in 2017 the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority exported 36.8 million tons of coal, compared to 31.5 million tons shipped from its next rival, Norfolk Virginia.

As the National Post’s Tristin Hopper observes  “Much of Vancouver’s coal is handled by a single facility that ranks as the largest of its kind on the continent.Westshore Terminals (at Roberts Bank superport) loaded 29 million tonnes of coal in 2017, nearly triple the combined coal exports of the entire U.S. West Coast.”

Coal  “is the province’s number one export commodity” worth $3.32 billion in 2016. While the coal mined in British Columbia is mostly metallurgical, Vancouver’s ports ship thermal coal mined in Wyoming and Montana, as Washington and Oregon ports refuse to handle thermal coal because of environmental concerns.  The previous Liberal provincial  government called for a ban on American thermal coal during a Canadian softwood lumber dispute with the United States, but nothing became of that. From 2008 to 2017, Vancouver’s thermal coal exports doubled to 11.3 million tons, and move tariff free. In fact, Westshore Terminals has produced a little guide suggesting that levies or tariffs on thermal coal would have a bad impact on the province, and that this dirty coal would just be shipped from somewhere else in the world.

Meanwhile  Port Metro Vancouver is pushing for Terminal 2  expansion at  Roberts Bank which would be a three berth container terminal that threatens the particular biofilm found in these waters that feeds migrating western sandpipers. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has deemed this impact as irreversible and continuous.The port is insisting that container traffic will increase, and this terminal is needed now.  This seems to be opposite the thoughts of some industry experts and critics that note that larger more efficient ships will actually decrease traffic, and automation and better documentation will make loading and unloading more seamless.

Both the Tsleil-Waututh and the Lummi First Nations have spoken out against the port expansion, worried that more coal would be coming to the port to be shipped. CBC’s Stephen Quinn interviewed Rueben George, manager of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation’s Sacred Trust who stated that international borders are not important when protecting the environment and the waters that sustain us.

The idea that additional capacity is needed at Roberts Bank is also being questioned locally. In this commentary in the Delta Optimist Roger Emsley states that Vancouver “likes to forget that there are two major container terminals on the West Coast. Prince Rupert has capacity potential to grow to a super port handling four to five million containers per year. Add that to the expansions at Vancouver area ports and Canada will have container terminal capacity in the 10 to 11 million range when it is needed versus a best case scenario of about 8.2 million containers being handled by 2040.” 

Mr. Emsley’s credentials? He  is a member of Port Metro Vancouver’s Community Liaison Committee . He also  points out that there has not been a business case study by the Port for Terminal Two expansion.

You can take a look at the Port of Vancouver’s promotional video for the Roberts Bank  Terminal Two below.



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  1. I’m not sure I get the point of this article. The Fraser Port facility was doomed by economics. The possible expansions of Delta Port don’t really have much to do with thermal coal or met coal.

    The fact that metallurgical coal moves through Vancouver isn’t a dirty secret. It’s been happening for decades, and will continue to do so for decades more. You need that stuff to make steel. That’s pretty much all you do with it. Global steel demand isn’t likely to go down, climate change or not. The carbon from the coal is one of the two main ingredients for making carbon steel. Unless something replaces steel, then It’s probably going to be a key component of the economy for decades to come.

    Thermal coal is in it’s dying throws. We’re seeing the last moves of an industry trying to move a product that has had declining demand and is selling to a market which will likely shrink at an increasing pace. People were predicting there would be some huge economic pressure driving coal through White Rock on the BNSF when this was first proposed. That never materialized. People tend not to invest in commodities which are likely subject to technological obsolescence. You don’t need to ban, tariff or legislate when something is just going to stop itself regardless.

    There is one thermal coal mine left in BC. It’s an operation in Campbell River called Quinsam. It’s pretty small, they mostly sell to cement manufacturers who are making Clinker. As with steel, cement is hard to replace, but people are working on that.

  2. This is a well written article and follow-up reply describing the two types of coal being shipped out of Vancouver. Most of the thermal coal appears to be coming from the USA and there obviously is a demand for it overseas in Asia and surrounding countries. I have a concern for the global community and developing countries. Should we cut off “dirty fuel” to them (which we have the luxury of moving away from except in Vancouver where natural gas allows us to cook and heat our homes) so that our carbon emissions will be less? How can we support their development to more electric-powered devices and communication sources if they don’t have a fuel supply? are we developing reasonable alternate energy sources fast enough? I would like to know more about the global picture of energy consumption, etc.

    1. Hi Rosalind,

      To answer some of your questions:

      1) China is already well ahead of us when it comes to pushing Electric Vehicles and Renewable Energy infrastructure. Their EV market is now over 4% of their total vehicle market (1.2 million EVs sold in 2018). In Canada, EV market share sits around 2-2.5% of total sales.
      2) China installed 44 GW of solar PV in 2018, for a total install base of 174 GW. Canada has around 3 GW of solar PV. China derives 5-6% of its electricity from solar. Canada derives 0.5% of its electricity from solar.
      3) China derives 10% of its electricity from wind. Canada is around 5%.

      The question shouldn’t be, how can we support their renewable energy and electric vehicle markets. They already have the most aggressive clean energy and clean transport programs (including the world’s largest high speed rail network) on the planet. Rather, we should be looking in the mirror, and asking how we can do a better job of cleaning up our own messes in personal transport and power generation. Per Capita, Canadians rank amongst the world’s worst on CO2 emissions (and above those Yanks down south).

  3. The article does make the distinction between thermal coal and anthracite, which is the higher quality coal used in steel and which remains BC’s largest coal export subcomponent, much as Alexander MacKinnon reiterated above. Exports of BC’s metallurgical coal has he support of BC Green Party leader and notable climate scientist Andrew Weaver, namely because steel is a very important material.

    Port Metro Vancouver is a federal agency. The Trudeau government espouses action on climate change and is currently embroiled over a largely-self-created political controversy on implementing a national carbon tax. At the same time the government fought hard in support of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) project and ended up buying the existing pipe and any expansion on behalf of taxpayers, while allowing thermal coal transhipments to leave the mainland through Roberts Bank. Both exports of carbon products create few jobs in BC, are designed for pure export in raw form with very little value-added processing or domestic use, and create immense environmental problems and hugely inflated risks.

    Canada and BC can well afford to stop these projects. There is no actual “balance” between jobs and the environment on either of them, as Trudeau and his now-discredited environment minister continue to argue in the doublespeak language. Alberta has objected to the legitimate resistance surrounding TMX, largely with bullying terms, arrogant threats, not a small amount of condescension, and from outright desperation. But its problems began generations ago when it gave up any hint it took advice from wise council on the benefits of economic diversification and continued being utterly subservient to a single commodity, and allowing the deep influence of industry over government and any environmental regulatory bodies. BC’s riparian and coastal environment and economy will be put at great risk if TMX eventually makes it to the terminus in Burnaby, or is replaced by shipments of diluted bitumen by rail, which we have seen recently is not accident or tragedy-free.

    There is no way around the fact that our society needs to transition away from carbon ASAP and assume responsibility to power up with renewable electricity, of which BC has great potential. Decarbonizing should be a trans-Canadian project in the national interest, but when you hear that phrase today, it’s all about oil, kowtowing to Alberta and last century’s economy.

    Some urbanist’s like me worry that Trudeau will offer to horse trade worthwhile policies, such as continuing major investments in public transit (e.g. subway to UBC) or start investing in renewables and conservation for TMX in Metro Vancouver as part of his 2019 election platform. As a federal Liberal strategic voter last time, nothing will push me quicker to the Greens or NDP than something like that. Pushing TMX and US thermal coal means that The Kid is willing to sacrifice his 17 Metro seats and risk having to form a minority government with either the NDP or Greens (very good), or see the rise of the Conservatives again (very bad). It will be a hard decision.

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