Coal in the Local Spotlight

March 18, 2013
Denise Mullen

The Mayor or Vancouver recently tabled a motion “to prevent the expansion of, or creation of new, coal export infrastructure within the City of Vancouver”. The Mayor of White Rock has done something similar. Vancouver’s Mayor, the Mayor of Burnaby and the Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation are hosting an event in the near future aimed at rallying support to stop the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Then there are all the various groups and campaigns that seem to spring up around election time which seem to say “no” to just about everything and “yes” to things that cost a lot money (but without any ideas about how to pay for them, e.g., the proposal for a new subway along the Broadway Corridor recently advanced by the City of Vancouver and others).

Somehow there is a belief that energy, minerals and other factors of production are magically available, cheap and easily accessible and come from “somewhere else”. Where do people think all the things they demand and depend upon – refrigerators, washers, dryers, small appliances, ovens, big screen TVs, computers and all their micro parts, fabric for clothing, pipes for water and heating ducts, vehicles, wires for electricity, and asphalt for roads – actually come from? The list of goods we consume the production of which involves the use of energy, industrial raw materials and other commodities, is endless. We might not be out hunting in small groups for dinner, but we are constantly “hunting” for raw materials that are required to feed the appetites of an ever expanding world population who tend to want similar things.

There’s no getting away from the fact that human infrastructure is built off the bounty of mother nature. The challenge is how to meet this almost insatiable appetite for things made from that bounty of nature in a responsible way because the option of “going back to the land” is a fantasy – 50% to 80% of the global population already lives in cities, and cities are huge users of resources. But most urban dwellers, including those who reside in Metro Vancouver, have become disconnected from these realities. In the comfort of our homes and with instant wired access to the world, it’s easier to “just say no” rather than contribute in a meaningful way to finding solutions. Why not work with the coal industry to deal with any issues arising from its transport, rather than trying to stop the industry from accessing global markets? Especially given in the past five years coal has ranked as BC’s single biggest export.

In the more recent angst-ridden moments around coal exports and energy pipelines, many people in BC seem to think that if we prevent development, this somehow will have a positive impact on the state of the world. Not true. We only hurt ourselves by limiting our ability to trade and develop our resources, and in a province and country which depends on trade and resources, this is a dead end road. Stopping the expansion at BC ports does nothing to influence global demand for or consumption of the commodity; instead, it only limits our own potential to sell metallurgical coal to Japan and other markets – coal that, on a life cycle basis, is less carbon-intensive that coal from other supplier jurisdictions because in BC’s case, it is produced largely using clean hydroelectricity.

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