Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Port Authority: Climate change not our problem

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The following is a Press Release from Voters Taking Action on Climate Change on the decision yesterday by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to approve plans for coal export expansion at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver.

I am copying it in full since it is well argued and referenced – and I somehow doubt that it will attract anything like the coverage it deserves in the mainstream media (which goes to the Vancouver Sun story. VTACC isn’t mentioned but the responsibility issue is. You might have to pay to read that.)

The contrast to the way that coal terminal expansion in our region is being dealt with stands on stark contrast to the ongoing battle just to the south of us.

Climate change not our problem: Port Authority approves Neptune coal export expansion
— shrugs off calls for broader consultation on climate, health impacts from climate scientists, mayors, Lung Association and others

For immediate release

January 24 2013

Vancouver —

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority announced yesterday that it has approved plans for coal export expansion at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver.   In doing so it ignored appeals from the public, climate scientists, regional mayors, the BC Lung Association and leading NGO’s(1) to delay a decision until the broad public had been thoroughly consulted on the climate and potential health impacts of this proposal.

Approval means that coal exports from this facility will expand by as much as 13 million tonnes per year over 2011 levels.(2) At full output, Neptune Terminals could see 4 to 5 loaded coal trains arriving each day (up to 10 train trips per day total), based on current coal train capacities.(3)

The Port Authority has rejected arguments about climate change, potential health impacts, and broad public consultation in making its decision.  We address each of these points in turn below.

Climate Change
Climate change is a real and urgent threat to our children’s future.  The greenhouse gas emissions that will result from the burning of BC’s coal exports will hurt all global citizens, including British Columbians.  The International Energy Agency reported last year that if we continue to blindly service increasing demand for fossil fuels, by 2050 the world will be locked into a devastating 6 degree increase in temperature.

Taking steps to avoid this outcome cannot be reconciled with increasing exports of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.  “Business as usual” is no longer an option.  We must all take responsibility to reduce emissions.  The Port Authority does not get a free pass on this issue by choosing to narrowly interpret its federal mandate as the demand-driven facilitation of trade.

Coal exports from Metro Vancouver have increased considerably in recent years, and if the Neptune Terminals and Fraser Surrey Docks coal export proposals are both approved Metro Vancouver will be the biggest coal exporter in North America.  Total emissions from this exported coal would be greater than those from the Northern Gateway pipeline.  The public should not think that these will be the last proposals to increase coal exports out of our region.(4)

The Port Authority and its tenant, Neptune Terminals, have not explicitly acknowledged that metallurgical coal exported from Neptune Terminals, when used in steel making, produces as much global warming pollution as thermal coal used in power production.  By ignoring the harm that these exports will do to our fragile climate, Neptune Terminals and the Port Authority do a disservice to the public. 

Regional impacts from increased coal train traffic
The Port Authority has not acknowledged that developments on its own lands have impacts in communities far outside its jurisdiction.  It has not addressed the fact that the Neptune Terminals expansion will result in increased train traffic through North Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, Langley and other municipalities further afield, resulting in increased exposure to diesel emissions and unknown amounts of coal dust.

The Port Authority indicates that Transport Canada has the power to regulate rail traffic, but it does not clarify that there are no regulations governing the release of coal dust from trains in Canada, and that any measures to control coal dust escapes are entirely voluntary on the part of railways.  The Port Authority has ignored a call from the BC Lung Association, the Public Health Association of BC, Canadian Physicians for the  Environment and individual health leaders to delay these decisions until unanswered questions about potential health impacts have been properly assessed.  If the Port Authority truly aspires to be a good neighbour to Metro Vancouver communities, it would work to close these gaps in public oversight prior to approval of coal export expansion.

Port Authority decision making and consultation processes
We remind the Port Authority that their federal  mandate includes a requirement that they act with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians.   The Port Authority has ignored calls from the Mayors of Vancouver and New Westminster for broader public consultation on these decisions.  They have ignored similar calls from leading public organizations and high profile individuals.  Again, these actions call into question the Port Authority’s aspirations to be a good neighbour to Metro Vancouver communities.

In keeping with the Port Authority’s stated commitment to transparency, we call on the Port Authority to make public all comments received during their consultation over the Neptune Terminals decision, as was done during the scoping phase of the review of the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal in Washington State.

More broadly, the conduct of the Port Authority during this review process calls into question how well it reflects the interests of the region within which it operates.  Seven of eleven seats on the Port’s Board of Directors are nominated by port users.  Only one seat is nominated by regional communities.  There are no board members representing health concerns.  There are no board members representing environmental concerns. Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC) calls on the federal government to change the make up of the Port Authority board to better reflect the priorities of our region in Port decision making.

“The Port doesn’t lack the authority to consider climate change or broad health concerns in its decisions, it lacks the courage to do so,” said Kevin Washbrook, Director with VTACC.  “We think the Port Authority shrugs off any responsibility for these issues because its board doesn’t reflect who we are as a region, our shared concern for a healthy future and our sense of a moral obligation to take action on climate change,” Washbrook said.

VTACC calls on the Port Authority to reconsider this decision, to open it to full public review, and to more broadly interpret their mandate to incorporate shared responsibility for our future.  This is the transparent, fair and morally responsible thing to do.

“It is hypocritical to celebrate Vancouver as a Green City and British Columbia as a climate leader, while we continue to prosper from the export of coal and oil,” said VTACC Director, Kathryn Harrison “With each approval of new infrastructure for coal exports, the Port Authority further locks us into an economic path dependent on  fossil fuels. They are sacrificing our children’s future for short-term gain.”


(1) Read the open letter from climate leaders here. Signatories included Bill McKibben, James Hansen, David Suzuki, Andrew Weaver, Mark Jaccard, Naomi Klein, Tzeporah Berman, William Rees, Greenpeace Canada, the Council of Canadians, the Islands Trust Council and a host of other individuals and organizations.

(2) Starting with the Port Authority’s overall figures for coal exports in 2011 (32.7 million tonnes in 2011) and subtracting Westshore’s self published figures (27.3 million tonnes) leaves approximately 5.2 million tonnes for Neptune in 2011. (Minor amounts of coal may have been shipped from other locations.)  The proposals just approved will increase Neptune Terminals capacity to 18.5 million tonnes/yr.

(3) A rough estimate of the relationship between daily train traffic and annual export volumes can be derived from the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal. This indicates that 4 million tonnes/yr export results in 1 coal train per day (scroll down to point 8).  Other sources confirm these numbers, assuming standard rail car volumes and 126 car trains.   Applied to Neptune, this means that in 2011, with exports of approximately 5.2 million tonnes, there was likely 1 coal train per day to the terminal, and perhaps 2 on some days — or 2 to 4 one way trips in loaded and out empty.

Using the same calculations, exports of 18.5 million tonnes per year would mean 4 to 5 coal deliveries per day, and 8 to 10 total train trips (in loaded, out empty).  Neptune indicates that it may begin using trains that are 152 cars in length.  If that is the case it would decrease the total number of daily trips, assuming the rail cars were the same volume.

It’s worth noting that longer trains will also increase delays at rail crossings; a 152 car train is approximately 2.6 km in length

(4) Fraser Surrey Docks has indicated that it is seeking out other coal export customers in addition to BNSF.  If the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham Washington (projected to generate 18 return coal train trips per day) is not approved, there will be increased pressure to export US coal through BC.  Westshore Terminals general manager Denis Horgan has stated that currently proposed capacity increases will not be enough to meet expected demand:

“Between us, Neptune and Ridley right now, let’s say we’re close to 50 million tons capacity. All of us combined. With all of these projects going on in a couple years time we’ll be at 70 million. But even then it still isn’t enough,” said Denis Horgan, vice president and general manager, Westshore Terminal.”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

7 Responses

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  1. Pete McMartin has a very good opinion piece on this issue behind the Sun’s paywall

    Stephen Rees

    January 28, 2013 at 8:26 am

  2. 70 million tonnes … at 2.7 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of combusted coal on average, that’s nearing 200 million tonnes of exported CO2 through BC from coal alone every year. Add in both exported and domestically-used oil and gas (I don’t have these numbers at hand) and BC may be approaching a half billion tonnes of domestic and exported CO2.

    Let’s say it’s conservatively estimated at 350 million tonnes of CO2 through BC every year. At $10 / tonne a national carbon tax would pull in $3.5 billion in revenue every year just from BC from fossil fuels.

    Of course, coal shippers would probably threaten to pull out and send it all through US ports on the West Coast, and hundreds of jobs and billions in carbon tax revenue will be lost. At worst, Australia and US coal companies will fill the vacuum if Canada kills its coal industry.

    What this means is that a carbon tax must: 1) be low enough initially to avoid such action; 2) progress upwards incrementally to be effective; and 3) stimulate an international discussion on do we really need the coal industry in the 21st Century anyway, and if it was driven away through higher carbon taxes, what could fill its place?

    These are the kinds of adult discussions we should be having nowadays in national and local forums.


    January 30, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  3. I don’t think you quite get why this isn’t the ports problem. I know you’re a planner and not someone who knows about minerals, but you’re propagating misinformation.

    Metallurgical coal and thermal coal are used in quite dissimilar circumstances. While you still burn it, it’s not because you’re looking for the energy. The coal forms a coke and basically is used to put carbon into iron, hence why its metallurgical.

    For the most part there’s not enough money to be had in thermal coal to export it. The stuff’s too cheap and shipping is too expensive. Hence why coal power plants are often right beside a coal deposit, as you can see in Alberta.

    While society could probably do without coal as a fuel source, I doubt we could deal with not having basic building components such as steel. While the ships and trains still aren’t the greatest for the environment, I feel like the port was right in telling the greenies off. Would copper or other industrial minerals generated similar controversy?

    Alex MacKinnon

    February 8, 2013 at 11:43 pm

  4. I suggest that before you post a comment accusing anyone of “propagating misinformation” you do a little fact checking. Google makes that quite easy. For instance you might find this article enlightening
    or maybe this one

    Whether or not you are “looking for energy” putting anthracite into a blast furnace does indeed release vast amounts of CO2. Yes some C is captured by the Fe to make steel – but not all that much – and there is a lot more C in anthracite than bituminous coal.

    Stephen Rees

    February 9, 2013 at 4:16 pm

  5. You still seem to have intentionally avoided the point I was making.

    What do you think wind turbines are made of? I’ve stood inside of them and as far as I can tell they’re hundreds of tonnes of steel. A small turbine farm (as the one I’ve bought shares in and worked on) probably has somewhere near 20,000 metric tonnes of steel.

    Sustainable infrastructure isn’t built out of stands of renewable bamboo. Everything from water pipes, penstocks, stoves and rail cars is mainly made out of steel. High rises, low rises, buses, transmission lines and rest of it. As far as I can tell weening ourselves off fossil fuels will require a heck of a lot of new infrastructure.

    When you planned for Metro, did you plan to have everything built like a Trabant? Trains made of cardboard and rat poison?

    The world isn’t ever going to be like it was before the industrial revolution. To pretend that 7 billion people don’t need steel or other industrial materials is just part of what makes opinions like yours increasingly irrelevant.

    Alex MacKinnon

    February 9, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  6. No, I directly answered the point you made. Metallurgical coal produces greenhouse gas. Simple statement of fact. Try another one. The world has to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas now, dramatically or future human existence is in jeopardy. The present government, running for re-election claims to have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions through the use of the carbon tax. The only way that claim can be supported is by pretending that exports of fossil fuels (which includes coal used for steel making) do not count towards “our” emissions.

    You have now been added to the small select group of commenters who get moderated before they post. I think you are a troll, and I intend to treat you like one. I have never “planned for Metro” nor have I ever claimed to have done so. Your comment is left as is simply to show others what a twerp you are.

    Stephen Rees

    February 9, 2013 at 7:26 pm

  7. Alex, before you harshly dismiss ideas to replace coal, I suggest you look up a few alternatives like, say, electric induction kilns for steel-making and the making of Portland cement. Moreover, Kitimat’s Alcan Rio has been using hydroelectricity to smelt aluminum and produce supplemental power for BC Hydro for several decades now.

    In your zeal to ignore the legitimate economic consideration of value added products, you also ignore metals recycling and the opportunities for future heavy industry in BC. HSS and aluminum are infinitely recyclable, but we choose to send shiploads of the stuff off to China to be melted in filthy coal-fired plants only to be shipped right back to us in the form of higher value finished products. It is beyond irony that we also ship over the coal to fire their steel plants containing our scrap metal.

    With a little imagination and open mindedness one can envision clean energy steel recycling plants located within a reasonable distance of BC’s extraordinary potential geothermal power sites, like Meager Creek. The carbon component in steel alloys remains during remelting, and the steel can be upgraded into different products suited to a variety of uses by adding things like molybdenum, nickel and copper. The latter increases the corrosion resistance of structures like bridges and salt-water piers — ever heard of Cor Ten steel?.

    All these metals, by the way, are mined in Canada, and I suggest the economic multipliers of employing Canadian workers and companies in new low-emission steel and concrete-making industries in BC will far outweigh any financial savings of shipping recyclable materials and fossil fuels offshore to countries with lax labour and environmental standards.

    A geothermal power plant doesn’t dam valleys or produce emissions beyond its construction, and can provide huge amounts of baseload electricity for industry 24/7/365. Closed geothermal systems adjacent to volcanic sites could potentially offer extremely abundant renewable power for very low rates over very long periods. It can also act as a back up to BC’s other huge unexpored power potential, in–stream tidal with, unlike wind and solar, intermittency that can be calculated decades in advance.

    The extraction and export of raw resources in this country without regard to value-added initiatives, let alone decent R&D into new technologies, will not even begin address, in my opinion, climate change or the nation’s long-term economic outlook.


    February 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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