COLUMN: Coal on hot seat, whatever the election result

COLUMN: Coal on hot seat, whatever the election result

Significant change is expected on one important local issue – the export of thermal coal.

by Frank Bucholtz

No matter the result of Tuesday’s election, there will be significant changes on one important local issue – the export of thermal coal.

This issue has got a lot of attention in the past few years, due to concerns about coal train traffic through White Rock and South Surrey and climate change. An even bigger issue was the proposal for a coal-export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks, which almost certainly will not go ahead now.

Curiously, it was not environmental concerns that pushed export coal to the forefront in the campaign. It was the long-anticipated U.S. government decision to impose steep duties on B.C. softwood lumber.

This decision, announced April 24, adds duties which in some cases are more than 20 per cent – and may turn out to be much higher by June. B.C. is hard-hit by the duties, with the highest ones being added to lumber shipped by B.C.-based companies.

Current Premier Christy Clark, who was trying for a second mandate as BC Liberal leader, was quick to jump all over the issue. What was unexpected was her linking of it to the export-coal issue. Clark announced at a campaign stop in Surrey on April 26 that she had written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking that his government prohibit the export of thermal coal. Up to that point, Clark had never indicated any interest in halting thermal coal shipments.

Later, she said that, even if Trudeau’s government didn’t approve the export ban, she would impose a $70 per tonne carbon tax on thermal coal being exported from B.C., which would effectively price it out of the market. Most of the thermal coal currently exported from B.C. goes to China for power generation, with the majority coming from mines in Montana and Wyoming, shipped by rail to Westshore Terminals in Delta.

Some thermal coal is also mined in Alberta, and shipped from Prince Rupert. Although Clark said her proposed carbon tax would apply to Alberta coal, the federal government does not seem keen on one province imposing a carbon tax on a product being exported by another province.

Trudeau told Clark in a letter Friday that his government was looking into her request, but at the same time the Trudeau government told Alberta officials that its coal would not be the target of any export ban.

About 75 per cent of the thermal coal exported from B.C. right now comes from the U.S. Most of the coal exported from B.C. is metallurgical coal, used in steel making, and would not be subject to the carbon tax or proposed ban. It is mined in B.C., and it is unlikely that any incoming B.C. government would even suggest closing those mines, which employ thousands of people.

The long battle over the Fraser Surrey Docks export terminal has involved numerous local governments and environmental organizations. While it has not yet been officially halted, and has received the approval of Port Metro Vancouver, any export ban or carbon tax would certainly kill it.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com