VANCOUVER -- Environmentalists here are wondering why proposed and expanded oil pipelines, in addition to liquefied natural gas projects in the province, are at the forefront of heated public protests while plans to ramp up exports of the world's dirtiest fossil fuel receive comparatively little attention.
Torrance Coste, of the Wilderness Committee, says he finds it shocking the idea of massive increases in coal exports ultimately responsible for toxic greenhouse gas emissions seems to be slipping under the radar while most B.C. residents are focused on Enbridge's pipeline plan for moving Alberta oil to world markets.
"It's a double-edged sword in the climate-monitoring community," Coste said in an interview. "Coal is getting so little attention compared to Enbridge and Kinder Morgan and LNG, as well."
The federally-sanctioned Vancouver Fraser Port Authority would become the largest coal exporter in North America if current expansion plans are carried out, he said. Doing so would also run afoul of Vancouver's ambitious environmental goals.
"You can't fight to be the greenest city in the world and be the largest coal exporter in North America at the same time," he said. "It's a logical fallacy."
Coste's comments came after the port authority in January gave Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver approval to expand its coal capacity from 12 million tonnes to 18.5 million tonnes a year. VFPA is also looking at a proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks to build a coal export facility in Surrey that could eventually handle eight million tonnes each year.
Westshore Terminals is the largest coal exporting facility in B.C., located at Roberts Bank in Delta, just south of Vancouver. According to Westshore general manager Denis Horgan, the company shipped approximately 26 million tonnes of steel-making and energy coal last year with 80 per cent earmarked for Asia.
Horgan added the company has just finished a five-year upgrade worth more than $100 million that increases its coal-exporting capacity to 33 million tonnes a year from 24 million tonnes.
The other major coal exporting facility in the province is located in Prince Rupert at Ridley Terminals Inc. and it, too, is embarking on a massive expansion.
According to Prince Rupert Port Authority records, 11.5 million tonnes of coal were shipped out of Ridley Terminals last year.
Ridley Terminals is currently looking to expand its coal capacity from 12 million tonnes to 25 million tonnes a year.
If all the expansion projects were completed, the coal carrying capacity of four B.C. terminals could jump to at least 84.5 million tonnes from 48 million tonnes a year, a 76 per cent increase.
That increase, says Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, can not be reconciled with humankind's need to drastically reduce its greenhouse gases instead of increasing them.
Washbrook said the additional coal capacity of 36.5 million tonnes annually would be equivalent to 73 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, or the emissions from 21 million cars per year.
He noted, by comparison, if Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline were built, estimates indicate the exported oil would pump 70 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. According to the B.C. government, provincial greenhouse gas emissions totalled 62 million tonnes in 2010.
Washbrook compared Big Coal to Big Tobacco and its efforts to obscure the risks of smoking in order to keep making huge profits. He also blasted the VFPA for both a lack of consultation on coal export expansion plans and downplaying the risks of products exported by its tenants.
He also said an increase in trains from mines in B.C. and the western U.S. carrying the product to Metro Vancouver would expose people to more diesel exhaust and coal dust.
Jim Crandles, VFPA's director of planning and development, said the organization's mandate is to facilitate the trade of Canadian resources. He said Neptune was given approval to expand its coal capacity through equipment upgrades because it was already in the coal business, it had made presentations to the public and it will be using the same physical footprint.
Crandles said VFPA is currently studying the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal and consulting with four cities adjacent to the Fraser River that the coal would be barged along. About 3,200 local residents have been supplied with information sheets about the proposal, he said, denying the port authority will be rubber-stamping the project.
Asked about coal being a dirty fossil fuel responsible for increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, Crandles said the port ensures materials are treated as safely as possible and discussions about what resources Canada chooses to trade internationally need to be conducted at the federal level.
In November, a group of concerned citizens, environmentalists and scientists asked VFPA officials to delay any expansion of coal-exporting facilities, saying public input was required and climate change problems would be increased as a result of the projects.
Among those who signed a letter opposing any coal port expansion were David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the first scientist to warn the U.S. government of the potential dangers of unmitigated climate change and who described coal-fired power plants as "factories of death."
Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.