WHILE those two oil pipeline proposals from Enbridge and Kinder Morgan have been hogging the limelight in recent months, another part of the energy debate is about to elbow its way onto the public stage.
That would be the issue of increased coal shipments through Metro Vancouver for export to Asia. It's a subject that is just heating up, as environmentalists turn their sights on a vital part of B.C.'s natural resource-based economy.
B.C.'s coal industry generates more than $3 billion in economic activity each year, and provides high-paying jobs for many people. It's in a position to grow, as Asian countries' insatiable appetite for coal shows no signs of ebbing any time soon.
This province has three coal exporting facilities, one in Prince Rupert and two in Metro Vancouver: Neptune in North Vancouver and Westshore Terminal in Roberts Bank. Another company - Fraser Surrey Docks - is proposing to turn its container terminal into a coal loading facility.
Helping to drive this push for more coal travelling through Metro Vancouver is the huge demand in Asia for "thermal" coal from the United States, mostly from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. While most of B.C.'s coal is of the metallurgical variety and is used primarily to manufacture steel, thermal coal is primarily burned to create energy.
There is not a single coal exporting facility on the U.S. west coast, although a couple may be built over the next decade. In the meantime, however, the only way to get that thermal coal to the Asian marketplace is through one of Metro Vancouver's terminals.
Environmental activists have seized on two arguments in opposing more coal traffic.
First, they argue, more coal means more coal dust falling on the neighbourhoods through which coal trains run. The second argument is that exporting more thermal coal to Asia will simply worsen the global warming trend as the more coal that is burned, the more greenhouse gas emissions occur.
The industry insists the coal dust concerns have been taken care of because coal trains are sprayed with dust-eliminating liquids at various stages of their journey, and at the terminals themselves.
But the climate change argument may be a more difficult one for the industry to refute. The movement to end global warming is growing and certainly has appears to have a large constituency in British Columbia.
The coal industry's main allies are countries like India and China, who import most of the coal from B.C. and the U.S. Those countries' counterargument about their need to burn coal for energy is also a compelling one as more energy means more people in those vastly populated countries can be lifted out of life-threatening poverty.
My Global BC colleague Jas Johal's recent four-part series on coal exports included an interview with Sam Pitroda, an adviser to the prime minister of India. He noted the hypocrisy of Western countries, which have been burning coal for more than a century, purporting to limit the ability of India and China to do the same.
Then there's the jobs argument. Premier Christy Clark's re-election win was based on the relentless message of the need to create jobs, and it obviously proved to be a popular one with the public.
As the debate heats up, the Clark government will come under pressure to state its position on the movement of coal (although the federal government has jurisdiction over ports). It is also the kind of issue that could further expose the growing split in the NDP between environmentalists and blue-collar job proponents.
We've seen this movie before, of course. The fact this province's economy is largely based on the extraction and export of natural resources has made B.C. ground zero in many campaigns waged by environmentalists against industries.
The environmental movement has never explained how shutting down or greatly reducing B.C.'s natural resource sector won't have negative consequences for the provincial economy. There appears to be no realization among those who oppose mining or forestry that those activities help pay for their health care and education.
But those inconsistencies have not stopped the environmental movement from enjoying past successes. Will it be successful in stopping not only the construction of oil pipelines through B.C., but also the proposed increase of coal shipments through our ports? It's a classic made-in-B.C. kind of fight, and it's just getting started.
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