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Ridley Terminals Inc., located in the Port of Prince Rupert, handled 2.2 million tonnes of thermal coal last year.

The federal government, owner of Ridley Terminals Inc. on British Columbia's north coast, has been placed in a difficult position by B.C. Premier Christy Clark's request to ban thermal coal exports from the province.

As Ms. Clark campaigned last week for the May 9 provincial election, she sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to impose a ban that would hit B.C. ports handling thermal coal – a commodity that goes into coal-fired plants to generate electricity.

Environmentalists are hoping Mr. Trudeau will heed Ms. Clark's call for Ottawa to halt exports of thermal coal from B.C. ports, a move that would stop shipments originating from mines in the United States and Canada.

Kevin Washbrook, the B.C.-based director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said even though Ottawa is in a tough spot because it owns Ridley, Ms. Clark is right to complain about coal producers in both countries exporting through B.C. ports.

"Alberta is phasing out the use of thermal coal because it isn't safe to use at home and because of the impacts on our health and on our climate, so what are we doing exporting it? It's immoral for Canada to be exporting it to other countries," Mr. Washbrook said in an interview on Sunday. "If Mr. Trudeau is serious about climate change, he needs to seize the moment. Thermal coal is the new asbestos."

Ridley, located in the Port of Prince Rupert, handled 2.2 million tonnes of thermal coal last year, accounting for 55 per cent of the coal facility's total exports.

Coal Valley Resources Inc., which runs a thermal coal mine in Alberta, is a major exporter through Ridley. Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Co. owns Coal Valley.

Ms. Clark is not targeting metallurgical (or coking) coal, a key ingredient that goes into making steel. Metallurgical coal exports from Ridley have been on the rise this year.

Environmentalists are worried about shipments of thermal coal flowing through B.C. in order to get to Asia. In recent years, U.S. producers have primarily used Westshore Terminals Investment Corp.'s site south of Vancouver to export coal to Asia. Westshore wrote its own letter last week to Mr. Trudeau, urging him to reject Ms. Clark's request.

In 2015, Westshore saw 9.1 million tonnes of thermal coal go through its facility, accounting for 32 per cent of that site's exports. Last year, exports of thermal coal through Westshore fell to 6.3 million tonnes, or one-quarter of the terminal's total volume.

Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy Logistics LLC formerly shipped some thermal coal through Ridley but decided in late 2014 to consolidate its exports through Westshore, which has handled the vast majority of U.S. thermal coal exports from British Columbia in recent years.

In her letter to Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Clark linked her call for banning thermal coal exports to the Trump administration's decision to impose countervailing duties on Canadian softwood lumber shipments south of the border.

"I know there is a lot of cynicism out there because the Premier brought up the ban in the context of retaliating against U.S. softwood lumber duties. But she is calling for a bold, broad ban on thermal coal exports, not just U.S. coal," Mr. Washbrook said.

Ridley is a federal Crown corporation, while companies owned by B.C. billionaire Jim Pattison recently held 27.3 per cent of Westshore's outstanding shares.

Mr. Washbrook said he will be monitoring another exporting site, Neptune Bulk Terminals (Canada) Ltd. in North Vancouver. Teck Resources Ltd. owns 46 per cent of Neptune and is the sole shipper of metallurgical coal through the facility.

Fraser Surrey Docks, a marine terminal located on the Fraser River in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, has been touted as a potential new site to export thermal coal originating from the Powder River basin in the United States.

Mr. Washbrook said he remains concerned about Fraser Surrey Docks, even though that proposal has run into delays.

The Port of Vancouver is effectively the federal landlord for marine terminal operators such as Fraser Surrey Docks, Westshore and Neptune.

A group called Fraser Voices said it makes sense to scrap the Fraser Surrey Docks expansion idea. Fraser Voices spokesperson Susan Jones added that the group opposes the B.C. Liberal party's support for a new Massey bridge, saying it would be better to twin the existing Massey tunnel.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan has said the bridge concept isn't supported by mayors in the Vancouver region.