COLUMN: Coal a sunset industry

Fraser Surrey Docks could be used for other long-term, sustainable purposes.

The coal port proposed for Fraser Surrey Docks is changing shape. The company that operates the docks is now proposing that coal be loaded directly onto ships, rather than being transported by barge to Texada Island, and then loaded onto ships.

Fraser Surrey Docks has amended its proposal for a coal export terminal, and public input on the change is being welcomed until May 19.

CEO Jeff Scott says the change is partially due to lower coal prices. The extra handling that would be required to ship coal by barge and then unload it a second time made the existing proposal uneconomical. He says the cost of the project will be more than the $15 million initially forecast.

The proposal calls for one trainload of coal to come north to the docks daily, from coal fields in Wyoming and Montana, via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The coal would be loaded directly onto ships that would take it to Asian markets, likely in China, where the coal would be burned in thermal energy plants to create electricity.

Scott said there is no plan to store the coal at the docks, so presumably it will remain stored in rail cars until a ship is at the dock and ready for loading. The proposal calls for 80 ships annually to move to and from the port to handle the coal. Had the original loading plan gone ahead, there would have been 640 barge-loads of coal going down the river each year.

That was one of the major concerns of opponents. They feared coal dust. There are many homes near the waterfront, particularly in New Westminster, and opposition to the coal project was significant. There are also a number of homes in Surrey and Delta close to the docks.

The other major concern is the broader one of climate change. Coal is one of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions, given that it is virtually 100 per cent carbon. Concerns about carbon emissions and effects of the emissions on the atmosphere have been widespread and the subject of a global effort to reduce emissions. The coal proposal flies in the face of that.

Coal companies in the United States have been seeking additional markets as the number of U.S. coal-fired power plants is decreasing. There have been a number of proposals to ship coal from various ports along the U.S. west coast, and all have met a great deal of resistance.

Some thermal coal is already being shipped from Westshore Terminals in Delta, but it has finite space for coal storage. Thus Fraser Surrey Docks has been tapped. The docks are not fully utilized and would welcome the additional business.

While about 45 jobs would be created by handling coal, it seems this is a sunset business. At least partially due to the emissions concerns, China is set to start using a great deal more natural gas to fire its electricity plants. Some will come from Russia and some may come from B.C. and west coast states with LNG plants.

If coal prices stay low, it may not even make financial sense to ship coal to China, which produces a great deal of coal already.

It is also possible that China may discover more natural gas itself. New drilling techniques have led to an abundance of natural gas and nowhere near enough markets for it all. That’s why the B.C. government is investing so much of its time into trying to attract large companies to build LNG plants here.

There are a number of court cases surrounding the Fraser Surrey Docks coal proposal. Their outcomes will delay any final decision. Nonetheless, it seems there are many more likely users of the docks’ services that could add business in a long-term sustainable manner.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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