Reform needed before expanding coal shipments

Annual general meetings of organizations like Port Metro Vancouver are not usually lively events. Yet the port’s AGM June 4 drew roughly 200 citizens eager to discuss a proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks to export U.S. thermal coal.

In addition to concerns about the project itself — including release of toxic coal dust, increased rail traffic, and the contribution to global warming of up to 16 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide — many speakers raised questions about the port’s handling of the proposal.

In response, the port offered its well-rehearsed arguments: We’ve consulted widely, our mandate is to facilitate trade, and the rest is not our job.

British Columbians deserve better.

First, a bit of context. In recent years, U.S. electricity production has shifted from coal to natural gas, yielding significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, U.S. coal producers now find themselves with a surplus that they are eager to deliver to Asian markets. With proposals for coal ports in western states encountering strong public opposition, the U.S. industry has turned to British Columbia.

Exports of thermal coal from Metro Vancouver increased 68 per cent from 2009 to 2012, stretching the capacity of existing facilities. Fraser Surrey Docks’ proposal thus is likely the first of many. Already, County Coal has committed to release details this month of its plans for a 20-million tonne per year coal port on the B.C. coast. Decisions on projects that will impact the economic and environmental future of our region demand thorough, transparent, and accountable deliberation.

The port’s public consultations have been deeply flawed. A one-page newsletter was distributed to households in the immediate vicinity of the proposed facility, but no effort was made to alert residents of other communities that would be impacted by increased rail and barge traffic. The governments of Vancouver, White Rock and Surrey, and the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health Authorities, all have raised concerns about the consultation process. Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer has called for a comprehensive health impact assessment before any decision is made.

Although Port Metro Vancouver is the public agency responsible for the decision, it has relied on Fraser Surrey Docks, a private company with a financial stake in the outcome, to conduct most public consultations. The newsletter circulated to households was prepared by the proponent, and, not surprisingly, was entirely reassuring. Last month’s open houses also were hosted by Fraser Surrey Docks, not the port.

Port representatives say they have no authority to conduct public hearings. Yet, there is nothing in the port’s “letters patent,” the document through which the federal government delegates authority to the port, that precludes public hearings.

The port also has adopted a narrow construction of its environmental authority. Port spokespersons regularly state that their mandate is only to facilitate trade, without acknowledging their equally important mandate “to operate with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians.” The Canada Marine Act, which governs port operations, identifies both promotion of trade and provision of a high level of safety and environmental protection as equal goals.

The port insists it has no authority to consider climate change. However, Section 7.1 of the port’s letters patent authorizes the Port to conduct environmental assessments, without restriction on the nature of the environmental impacts. Section 11.1 directs the port to comply with all international obligations and agreements. As Canada is a signatory to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, that section not only invites, but may even require, consideration of a project’s contribution to climate change.

The port’s narrow interpretation of its mandate is less surprising if one considers the composition of the board of directors. Fully seven of 11 members are appointed by cabinet based on nominations from port users, the list of which includes the coal industry. There is no provision for inclusion of environmental or public health experts, nor First Nations. Three seats are set aside for appointees of local and provincial governments, but strangely those board members cannot hold elected office, as if being democratically accountable reduces, rather than enhances, accountability and legitimacy.

In effect, the foxes are guarding the chicken coop. It is telling that the port itself is a member of the Coal Association of Canada, an organization that exists to promote the interests of an industry the port is supposed to regulate!

British Columbians deserve rigorous consultations conducted by a more representative and impartial Port Authority before decisions are made that will transform our region and the planet we pass on to our children.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *