COLUMN: Coal conversation needed

In this era of almost unlimited information, events take place, are reported and often promptly forgotten.

Such an event was a 24-hour protest in White Rock on Saturday, May 5. The protest was staged by a group known as British Columbians For Climate Action, and included well-known environmental scientist Mark Jaccard, who was a key player in bringing in the B.C. carbon tax.

The protesters are unhappy about the export of coal to power plants in Asia. The coal is used to produce electricity, which is in high demand in many Asian countries, due to the rapid improvement of their economies.

This group targeted the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which hauls a lot of coal, mostly from Wyoming. Most is burned in the U.S., where it is used to produce power.

However, a small amount is exported overseas, and BNSF hauls some of it to Roberts Bank, where it is loaded onto Asia-bound ships.

This was not a last-minute surprise protest. Protesters made their objectives clear well beforehand, and even stated that they had no problem with other trains using the BNSF tracks – just the coal trains. They planned to blockade the tracks, right by the pier, if a coal train appeared.

It is notable that they also made the point that rail transportation is among the most energy-efficient, and needs to be encouraged. In an era where there is a lot of concern about energy use and carbon emissions, this fact often gets ignored. The Association of American Railroads notes that a freight train can haul one ton of freight 457 miles, using one gallon of fuel. Trucks and cars are nowhere near as energy-efficient, and as for jet airplanes, they are likely the highest carbon emitters.

Most of the day was a quiet one for the 40 or so protesters, but at about 6 p.m., a coal train did appear. They blocked the tracks, and 13 were arrested. They were taken to the White Rock RCMP station, and given tickets for trespassing. These will cost them $155 each – which they likely consider a small price to pay to get their message out.

Their points on the use of coal are worth considering. There is no question that coal emits more carbon when it is burned than other sources of energy. Yet it is also very abundant, and there are many good-paying jobs in B.C. based on the extraction of coal.

When one visits the East Kootenay region and sees how many people work for coal mines or in related businesses, one understands what an economic engine it is. That area of the province would be impacted if there was no coal mining.

As protest spokesman Peter Nix said, B.C. has acknowledged that there is a problem by imposing a carbon tax. This is correct, but whether the carbon tax will last much longer is an open question. There is no other similar carbon tax in other parts of Canada, and in most parts of the world.

If nothing else, the actions of the protesters should spark discussion about coal and the role plays in a modern society.

It is unrealistic to shut down coal mines arbitrarily, when there is plenty of demand for the product. Protesters here can have an impact on decisions of our governments, but that has little to do with how coal is used in other parts of the world.

Perhaps the protesters and others need to engage with Asian governments and see how practical it would be for them to get electricity from other sources.

Japan, for example, was getting a lot of electricity from nuclear power until last year’s tsunami.

Coal remains an important generator of electricity in Japan.

A thorough discussion about coal, its benefits and drawbacks, and the role it plays in the economy is needed. The protesters may have helped to begin that conversation.

• • •

Longtime South Surrey businessman Bob Hassell died last week at the age of 89. He and his wife Florence were the most generous donors to Peace Arch Hospital, which Bob Hassell was involved with from its beginnings as the White Rock Hospital in 1951.

His contribution to the community has been immense. He was truly a builder.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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