What a Difference a Degree Makes
by: Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, Kevin Washbrook Posted on: March 12, 2013
Editor’s Note: Learn about the latest with regard to coal exportation in British Columbia, Canada, and why the surrounding region is up in arms about the lack of a democratic decision-making mechanism. Is such a mechanism a community right?
By Kevin Washbrook, Director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change
For people living on opposite sides of the 49th Parallel, it’s like night and day when it comes to public consultation over coal exports.
In the US, more than 100,000 people submitted comments, through an open consultation process, to determine the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal.
In British Columbia, a handful of unaccountable staff from the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority will decide, in private, whether two coal export proposals will go ahead in Metro Vancouver. If approved, these proposals would make Metro Vancouver the largest exporter of coal in North America.
The Port Authority will accept comments from the regional public on these proposals. However, it has no obligation to provide notice to anyone beyond immediate neighbours of the port facilities, it has no obligation to publicly share comments received, and it has no obligation to act on the content of those comments.
The Port is willing to engage in this pro-forma exercise in public relations, just as it is willing to send its plush mascot Salty the Seagull out to hug our children at community events, because it likes to maintain the facade of being a “good neighbour.” When challenged, however, the costume comes off and the Port pushes back.
After learning about these two coal export proposals, Voters Taking Action on Climate Change poured all our energy into informing the public and coordinating a response. We delivered an open letter to the Port from the world’s top climate scientists and activists, leading local academics, and NGO’s, urging the Port to delay decisions until it had consulted more broadly. Regional Mayors called on the Port to do the same.
We organized a second open letter from health leaders, which called on the Port to delay a decision until the health impacts of increased coal train traffic could be assessed.
We encouraged the delivery of hundreds of personal letters to the Port. We organized a powerful silent demonstration outside the Port headquarters to show our determination to be consulted. All of these actions and resulting media coverage meant that an unknown issue in November, 2012 was the “coal export controversy” by late December.
Our demand throughout – for a delay until the public could be properly consulted – was reasonable and fair. We thought, because the Port’s mandate requires it to operate “with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians,” that we had a good argument.
In mid January 2013 the Port announced its approval of the first of two coal export facilities. In its rationale for the decision, the Port did not once mention climate change. It shrugged off calls for broad regional consultation. It ignored concerns about potential regional health impacts. It said, in essence, that its only obligation was to keep the trains running on time and the ships leaving port on schedule.
It was a disappointing outcome, with one positive result: the Port’s response made the public aware that we have an arrogant, unaccountable organization in our midst that wields unchecked power over our future. Lots of people care about coal exports. Many, many more care about fairness, transparency, and inclusion of public interests in decision-making processes.
The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is an agent of the federal government of Canada; it is governed by an eleven-member board of directors appointed by the federal government. Seven directors are nominated by port users, one by the federal government, one by the Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba), and one by the BC government. Port users include grain terminals, container ports, bulk terminals (coal, sulphur). A single seat is nominated by regional municipalities.
The Port Authority does not represent the interests of our region. The public, opposed to the lack of consultation over coal exports, has the moral high ground on this issue. We have initiated a legal review of the coal export approval, and have formally requested all documents related to the decision. We will continue to fight this approval, and to push for a radical overhaul in the way the Port Authority makes decisions to increase accountability and public input.
The Port Authority has yet to decide on a second coal export proposal, one which would see 8 million tonnes of Powder River Basin coal shipped via BNSF into Canada each year for export to Asia. All the same arguments apply against this proposal, and we are working with our allies south of the 49th to kill this plan.
Of course there is another degree difference that we need to worry about, and this one is indifferent to imaginary lines on the ground. If we don’t keep North America’s coal from being mined and shipped out of our ports, it increases the chance we’ll see temperatures rise and global warming slip completely out of our control. If that happens, it won’t make much difference which jurisdiction hosted the better consultation process.
Stopping coal exports is a challenge that we need to face together.
Photo: Voters Taking Action on Climate Change
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