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Environmentalists, industry tussle over proposed increase in B.C. coal exports

A battle over proposed new coal ports in the states of Washington and Oregon has spread into British Columbia, raising fears industry could miss out on a booming market in Asia.

In a public letter released Wednesday, nearly 200 prominent climate scientists, academics and environmental groups asked the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to delay expansion plans that would make it the largest exporter of coal in North America.

The letter asks for projects at Fraser Surrey Docks, in Surrey, and at Neptune Terminals, in North Vancouver, to be halted to allow for greater public involvement. And it calls for "explicit consideration of the global climate change impacts" related to exporting coal that could be burned to produce electricity.

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"These proposals are not in the best interest of Canadians, nor anyone else. They will … hasten the onset of dangerous climate change, which poses a clear threat to human health and well-being," states the letter.

The document is signed by authors such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, academics Mark Jaccard and Andrew Weaver, among others, and dozens of organizations including Greenpeace Canada, the Wilderness Committee, Earthjustice and the Rainforest Action Network.

The Canadian signatories are adding their voices to a growing environmental protest in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where concerns have been raised about climate change, coal-dust pollution and increased rail traffic associated with proposed port expansion.

The movement to constrain coal ports comes as the industry is pushing for greater transportation infrastructure to support the shipment of millions of additional tons of coal yearly to surging markets in Asia.

Ann Marie Hann, President of the Coal Association of Canada, said opposition to the Vancouver port projects is misguided because most of the coal shipped from B.C. is metallurgical, which is used to make steel, not thermal, which is burned to produce electricity.

She said delays could cost industry an opportunity to cash in on market demands and that would hurt Canada economically.

"You are preventing jobs from being created, you are preventing additional royalties being paid to the government … and you know there is a small window for Canada to potentially take advantage of the growing opportunities in Asia," she said. "If there is undue delay, then that window could very easily close on the Canadian industry."

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But Eric de Place, a senior researcher with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, said while B.C. ports have historically shipped mostly metallurgical coal, the expansions would allow for large volumes of thermal coal to be handled from U.S. mines.

"It's natural the debate would expand into Canada now that Port Vancouver is beginning to consider expanding to start handling some of this U.S. coal headed for Asia," he said. "The world's biggest coal reserves are located in the American heartland. The world's biggest consumer base is in East Asia – and the road between those two leads to the Pacific Northwest, to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia."

Joe Foy, a director of the Wilderness Committee, said the proposed expansion in B.C. would allow for an additional 14 million metric tons of coal to be exported from Vancouver.

He said that would include low-grade thermal coal from the U.S. and argued the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority cannot avoid addressing the issue of climate change.

"They are players in this game. They cannot wash their hands of it because the fact is coal is a huge polluter of our climate. I don't think they can dodge that," said Mr. Foy.

Port officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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