Exporting US Coal and Carbon Emissions

The governing Liberals in BC and Conservatives in Canada insist that jobs, public revenues and economic growth all depend on expanding fossil fuel exports. Christie Clark’s Liberals won the 2013 BC election promising a future of jobs and rising public revenues based on the export of liquified natural gas.  Now two years later faced with widespread protests and declining oil and gas prices, no LNG project has proceeded.

Additional oil pipelines to the Pacific are promoted but only Kinder Morgan is actually proceeding. Here preliminary efforts to double the existing line to Burnaby to carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands have been delayed by blockades and court action. One other project to export to Asia appears to be proceeding; it involves the dirtiest of all fossil fuels: thermal coal.  Port Metro Vancouver, a Federal Agency, has given a permit to ship thermal coal from Fraser-Surrey docks. The coal to be exported is mined in Wyoming and Montana. It is to be transported by rail to the docks, by barge to Texada Island and then by ships to Asia.

This proposal is also facing strong opposition. Fraser-Surrey docks are close to the center of heavily populated Metro Vancouver, directly across the Fraser from New Westminster. The permit is being appealed to the Federal Court by an environmental group, Ecojustice. The City of New Westminster is supporting the appeal as an intervener. City councils in Surrey, Burnaby, and Vancouver have voted to oppose the coal export permit. Communities along the rail route have also expressed their opposition. So has the Sechelt First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Texada Island.

The appeal is expected to argue that proper public hearings were not held;  communities near the port, along the rail lines and shipping lanes were not given fair opportunities to explain their health and pollution concerns. The appeal will make the case that the permit was tainted and should be overturned: Port Metro Vancouver had been instructed by the Harper government not to consider the impact these coal exports would have on global carbon emissions. Why is Canada not bound by international agreements to lower carbon emissions?

Although supporters of the coal exports claim there is little hazard, Black Lung, or Coalworkers Pneumoconiosis (CWP) has been a health and trade union issue for more than a hundred years. Coal dust remains in the lungs for life. Like silicosis and asbestosis, CWP is debilitating and ultimately fatal. The coal industry claims this is old news from the bad old days, that safety procedures and medical care are much better today.

The current Wikipedia entry reports that in 2006 nine percent of US coal miners who had worked 25 years in mines had been diagnosed with CWP—more than double the 4 percent in the 1990s. Two per cent of US miners who worked for a year in surface mines had CWP.

Yes, coal has been exported from nearby Deltaport and North Vancouver for many decades without public outcry. True, but most of the coal is metallurgical. Thermal coal is dirtier with much more fossilized plant and animal matter that turns to dust. Workers on ships, trains, and loading berths can don breathing masks and hazmat suits. The thousands of adults and children who live and play close by the Fraser-Surrey docks on the Surrey, New Westminster and Queensboro waterfronts cannot be expected to do the same.

If the exporting of thermal coal is so benign and economically beneficial, why is US coal destined for Asia being diverted through Canadian ports? Ports in Washington State, Oregon, and California, faced with widespread opposition, have declined to become sites for coal export terminals. So far not one US Pacific port has agreed to handle thermal coal exports.

For Canada and BC the export of US thermal coal would come with few economic benefits.  Our governments get no royalties or tax revenues from coal mined in the US.  The only economic benefit would be a few jobs, twenty-five additional jobs in rail, longshore work, and towboating—the number that would come from the opening of one more outlet by a major fast-food chain.

Some do see a few jobs at reasonable pay as more tangible than global warming, rising sea levels, increasingly extreme weather events, acidifying oceans, and declining local shellfish populations. But that is a minority view, driven by particular short-term interests.  Many more are coming to see reducing carbon emissions as humankind’s epochal issue. Unfortunately under Stephen Harper, Canada has come to be seen as a carbon-emissions rogue.

In 1992 at the international climate conference in Kyoto Canada agreed to carbon emissions targets. In 2006, soon after becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper announced that Canada would not reach the reductions targeted. In 2009 Canada participated in the international climate conference in Copenhagen and accepted the lower targets proposed. Since then expanding tar sands developments and fracking have increased, not lowered, Canada’s carbon emissions.

Why are fossil fuels the only game in town? Canada could do what other countries—Germany, Denmark, Norway, China, Brazil and India—as well as the State of California are doing, progressively replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Many more jobs would be created by substantially expanding sun, wind, and wave power. Public spending to expand transit and reconfigure cities to make it practical for people to walk or cycle to work, shopping and entertainment would generate even more jobs.

Al Engler is a long-time social activist, a retired towboat cook and trade union official. He is the author of books and numerous articles against capitalism and for economic democracy. Read other articles by Al.