In these days of controversy regarding environmental concerns, pipeline unrest, carbon tax, trade wars, border security and heightening tariffs, there is one industrial activity that, from a Canadian perspective, just does not make any sense politically, economically or environmentally. This controversial practice should outrage most Canadians, whether they be pro- or anti-pipeline, pro- or anti-Trudeau Liberals or pro- or anti-B.C. NDP/Green coalition.
The activity in question is the shipping of U.S. thermal coal through Canada to foreign markets. This coal is mined in Wyoming and Montana, transported by rail to Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank and shipped overseas for use in coal-fired power plants primarily in South Korea, Japan or Chile. The 10.5 million tonnes per year of U.S. coal shipped through Roberts Bank is comparable to the tonnage of less-dirty metallurgical coal shipped from all U.S. West Coast ports and is 29 per cent of the 36.8 million tonnes a year of coal shipped from Vancouver — the largest coal port in North America.
There is no doubt that coal is one of the dirtiest fuels widely used to generate electricity (thermal coal) and refine metals (metallurgical coal). The burning of coal negatively impacts human health and pollutes the environment in the vicinity of a burn facility and, globally, is the biggest contributor to climate change. Concerns regarding the shipping of coal include airborne coal dust that is blown from transport trains and from the mountains of coal stockpiled at Roberts Bank. There is also runoff rain water that picks up dissolved toxic contaminants as it percolates through the uncovered coal mountains and ends up in the environmentally sensitive delta water. Other major concerns include fire and spillage from accidents.
So, why is Canada involved in shipping U.S. coal overseas? The reason is partly political and partly environmental. The solidly Democrat states of Washington, Oregon and California, with tough environmental regulations, have repeatedly declined approval to ship coal despite recent appeals by the coal industry to the courts and the Trump administration. This leaves the thermal coal resources of the solidly Republican states of Wyoming and Montana land-locked. The solution is for Canada to come to the rescue by allowing the coal to be shipped.
Good old Canada, with environmental protection laws that were drastically weakened in 2012, willingly accepts shipping the U.S. coal that is too dirty for the Americans to ship themselves. The U.S. coal shipments are increasing. At Roberts Bank, they increased tenfold from 2008 to 2017 and another 15 per cent from 2017 to 2018. It appears that weak Canadian environmental laws are rigged to favour economic benefits for a handful of people, in this case mostly in the U.S. coal industry, over the health and well-being of the environment and citizens.In the coastal U.S. states, the situation is the opposite.
U.S. coal is not purchased or owned by Canadians and is not consumed in Canada so it is not subject to import tariffs, carbon tax or other levies. It is just a product in transit, passing through and contaminating the suburban, agricultural and Indigenous land corridor between the Canada/U.S. border and Roberts Bank. Thus the Westshore Terminals facility has become a nearly tax-free bypass conduit, allowing the U.S. coal industry to export its product overseas.
From a global perspective, the appalling hypocrisy of Canada’s policy regarding coal is a national embarrassment. In November 2017, Canada and the UK co-founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance with the mission “to advance the transition away from unabated coal power generation.”
Following this initiative, Canada committed to phase-out traditional coal-fired electricity by 2030 and pledged in December up to $275 million to assist developing countries in Asia to convert to clean energy from coal. So on one hand Canada pretends to lead the world on the road to phase-out coal-power generation. On the other, it quietly and unconscionably assists the U.S. coal industry ramp-up coal exports for use in power generation overseas.
The negative environmental impacts and controversy do not stop at Roberts Bank. The pollution continues into the ecologically sensitive waters of the Salish Sea and its surrounding communities. The dirty U.S. coal is transported overseas by foreign-owned and operated ships, another environmentally contentious issue which again results from weak Canadian regulations.
Expanded trade through the port of Vancouver has led to significant increase in shipping traffic over the past decade. Foreign owned and operated freighters, tankers and cargo ships, which had traditionally anchored in English Bay near the port of Vancouver, are now anchoring in the pristine waters of the Gulf Islands while waiting to dock. They often arrive weeks and sometimes months ahead of schedule and spend their wait time parked free of charge, polluting the air and disrupting marine life, including endangered orcas. The foreign ships run noisy, pollution-emitting generators 24/7 without regulation and without monitoring. They also drag their anchors along the sea bottom, destroying marine habitats.
Included among these foreign vessels are the ships that come to pick up the U.S. coal. These foreign ships should have no right to trespass in Canadian waters, let alone loiter for weeks, waiting to pick up U.S. cargo en route to foreign countries. This doesn’t occur among the pristine U.S. San Juan Islands or in other U.S. waters where these U.S. trade and shipping activities should be based.
The time has come for the governments of Canada and B.C. to strengthen environmental and transport regulations to reduce the disparity between the way Canada and the U.S. balance the benefits of industrial activities against protecting the health and well-being of the environment and the public.
James Kerr is a retired Environment Canada senior research scientist who participated in many national and international issues, including making substantial contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.