Opinion

COLUMN: Burning questions over coal

A proposal to ship much more coal along White Rock and South Surrey
A proposal to ship much more coal along White Rock and South Surrey's waterfront has drawn the attention of activists.
— image credit: Frank Bucholtz photo

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and many local citizens are now paying attention to an issue which activists tried to point out to them a year ago.

U.S. thermal coal is being exported from Canadian ports, and is travelling through White Rock along the BNSF Railway.

A year ago, activists held a vigil on the tracks near the pier and several were arrested. Police took them off the tracks, they paid modest fines, and the coal traffic continued.

Now there is a proposal, which is fairly far advanced, to ship much more coal from the Fraser Surrey Docks via barge to another facility on Texada Island.

It will be stockpiled there and then loaded onto large ships for transport to China. There, it will be burned to create electricity.

Regular readers of this column know that I’m a big believer in rail transportation and have no problem with BNSF running along the White Rock waterfront. Without the railway, White Rock would have developed in a far different way and it is quite likely that citizens would have little or no beach access.

The railway is also very generous to the city, leasing out its surplus land for parking purposes – which is a critical component of the city’s budget. It also donated the old station to the city, which is now the White Rock Museum and Archives.

However, this whole business of coal exports raises far more questions than it answers.

If the United States government is so concerned about global warming, as is frequently stated by President Barack Obama, why would it allow coal to be exported to China or anywhere else?

China burned 3.8 billion tons of coal in 2011, more than double what it burned 11 years earlier. It accounts for about 80 per cent world coal consumption. Coal is estimated to contribute 20 per cent of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Wyoming mines are shipping coal to B.C. for export at least partly because the U.S. is hypocritical about its own use of coal to fire electricity plants. It has a tough time shutting down exports when it burns coal itself. Many west coast U.S. cities oppose coal-export terminals as well.

And why would the coal be hauled by rail to Surrey, then shipped by barge, then loaded onto freighters? That seems like a lot of extra handling, and would most certainly add to the price.

While there may be some coal dust as a result of the rail haul, it will likely be minimal.

The handling of coal at mines when loaded onto rail cars is much better than it used to be, with many loads sprayed so that there is minimal dust.

Protesters are trying to stop the railway from hauling coal, which will be difficult. They may have more success in stopping the coal port at Fraser Surrey Docks, although that plan is well advanced.

The Texada Island transloading point may be where they have the most success.

Islanders are notoriously protective of their environment, far more than many mainlanders, and the stop to load freighters there seems completely unnecessary anyway.

However, in the bigger picture, both Canada and the U.S. need to look carefully at coal mining and exports. Most of the coal hauled from the mines in eastern B.C. to Roberts Bank is for coking purposes, and is needed in the production of steel.

However, coal which is burned to generate electricity can easily be replaced by commodities such as natural gas.

It has a far smaller carbon footprint.

It would be nice to see environmentalists speaking up in favour of the LNG plants proposed for the B.C. north coast, because that gas could displace much of the coal that China now burns, and have a dramatic effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

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

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