By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun Columnist
The decision by Port Metro Vancouver to allow construction of a terminal to handle coal from the United States is a small hole in the green wall that has been going up along the continent’s West Coast.
This green wall is a sign of a political, social and ideological fault lines separating the coast from energy-producing regions inland. The energy-producing regions are eager to sell their products to Asia, and the staunchly environmental coastal regions stand squarely in the way.
Thursday’s port decision is even more significant given that Oregon rejected a similar project days earlier.
The Oregon decision strengthened the green wall in the U.S. so much that there may be no remaining hope for American coal producers seeking to export from U.S. ports. While two other coal port terminals are being proposed in Washington state, that state sets far tougher hurdles than Oregon. The Oregon project was Wyoming coal’s best chance at finding an American outlet in the Northwest.
Both Metro Vancouver’s Surrey Fraser Docks proposal and the Ambre Energy proposal for Morrow, Ore., were judged environmentally acceptable by consulting companies.
In the Surrey case, consultant SNC Lavalin said its environmental review of the Fraser Surrey Docks expansion found “no unacceptable risks” from the development, despite neighbourhood concerns about coal dusts and other related pollutants and despite heavy criticism from Metro Vancouver’s health authorities.
Laura Benson, director of the Dogwood Initiative, called Port Metro Vancouver’s decision “devastating” in light of the U.S. proposal’s rejection by the Oregon Department of State Lands. “It would appear that Oregon officials take their accountability to the public seriously, while in B.C. our port authority and the provincial government bend over backwards to accommodate dangerous coal shipments,” Benson said in a statement.
The two proposals were essentially similar. Both aimed at providing a conduit for inland coal to reach the Pacific. Both would use rail to get the coal to port, where it would be barged to another terminal to be loaded onto freighters for the cross-Pacific trip. Both faced similar strong opposition from local communities and environmental groups around issues of coal dust and the coal’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions.
So what was different in one being rejected, while the other approved?
There is the obvious difference in the agencies doing the vetting — Port Metro Vancouver, which has a narrow focus on port activities only, and Oregon’s Department of State Lands. Another big difference was proposed volume — the Port of Morrow was aiming to handle 8.8 million tonnes of coal annually; the Fraser Surrey Docks plans four million (although it might later apply for eight million).
Perhaps most significant may be a voice that governments should be keenly aware of when it comes to energy extraction, transport and export infrastructure: First Nations.
According to Oregon’s official findings in rejecting Ambre’s plans, one of the reasons in Port of Morrow failing its permit application was the impact the project would have on a small fishery. The loudest voice in that fight were Oregon native groups, especially the Umatilla Confederated Tribes.
“The department received extensive, robust and persuasive input from the (various tribes), as well as from the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission,” the Oregon decision said. “Several tribal interests provided comment and affidavits containing historical information, descriptions, mapping, photographs and a video that support that there is important commercial, subsistence and cultural fishing uses by tribal fishers … in the project area.”
That level of First Nations involvement was not seen in the Fraser Surrey Docks discussion. Environmental groups say that was because local First Nation groups were not properly informed of the Fraser Surrey Docks expansion.
Even Asian policymakers have taken note of newly empowered coastal B.C. First Nations, who are opposed to proposed oil pipelines.
Top Asian officials who have been in Vancouver recently to discuss energy have all mentioned the need to consider the sensitivities and needs of the First Nation communities. And they understand the complexity First Nations legal challenges can pose for politicians and business leaders alike.
First Nations in Canada and the U.S. have become the backbone of the green wall.
The two coal proposals relied on existing rail lines. If First Nations can play such a role in derailing a coal port project in Oregon, they can likely pose stronger opposition to a new province-spanning pipeline that requires a lot more land.
Negotiations with the First Nations are thus the single biggest challenge that energy producers-exporters face in reaching Asian markets through Pacific ports.