Yes, anti-pipeline Vancouver really is North America’s largest exporter of coal

Lately, it’s one of the few things that oil boosters and environmental activists can agree upon: Calling Vancouver a hypocrite for opposing emissions while also being the continent’s coal port.

And both camps are correct. According to the data, Canada’s mecca of anti-pipeline sentiment does indeed rank as the largest single of coal in North America.

Vancouver’s various coal facilities exported 36.8 million of coal in 2017, according to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

This places the B.C. city well above , Virginia, the busiest coal port in the States. Despite a massive spike in U.S. coal exports for 2017, only 31.5 million tonnes of coal moved out of Norfolk last year.

Vancouver’s coal exports also dwarf the total coal production for the entire country of Mexico. According to data gathered by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Mexican mines have produced no more than 16 million tonnes of coal per year since 2006.

Machinery and coal at Neptune terminals, North Vancouver, April 28 2017.

Much of Vancouver’s coal is handled by a single facility that ranks as the largest of its kind on the continent.

Westshore Terminals loaded 29 million tonnes of coal in 2017, nearly triple the combined coal exports of the entire U.S. West Coast.

It’s also right next to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, making it a familiar sight to any passenger aboard a ferry arriving from Vancouver Island. Currently, Westshore Terminals is in the midst of a $275 million upgrade to “replace aging equipment and modernize our office and shop complex,” according to the company.

B.C. mines provide much of the coal flowing through Metro Vancouver. Even as coal production enters a prolonged decline around much of the world, it has been positively thriving west of the Rocky Mountains.

“Coal production is a mainstay of the province’s economy, generating billions of dollars in annual revenue and supporting thousands of well-paid jobs,” reads the website for B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum .

Coal is the province’s number one export commodity, with $3.32 billion of coal mined in 2016. Much of this is metallurgical coal, which is exported to Asia for the making of steel.

In recent years, however, Vancouver’s coal ports have also accommodated a massive increase in exports of coal, which is used for the production of electricity.

Coal is moved at Neptune terminals, North Vancouver, April 28 2017.

In 2008, only 4.4 million tonnes of Vancouver’s coal exports could be called non-metallurgical. By 2017, this had more than doubled to 11.3 million tonnes.

Controversially, almost all of this thermal coal is coming from the United States. As lawmakers in Washington and Oregon have begun shutting down their own coal ports due to environmental concerns, thermal coal producers in Wyoming and Montana have simply diverted their product through Canada.

In August, then-premier Christy Clark called for a ban on Vancouver exports of U.S. thermal coal in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber. 

“They are no longer good trading partners with Canada. So that means we’re free to ban filthy thermal coal from B.C. ports, and I hope the federal government will support us in doing that,” she said at the time

In the main, however, Metro Vancouver has benefited handsomely from the presence of the coal industry, according to numbers compiled by the B.C.-based Coal Alliance. Between 2012 to 2017, coal-related companies spent $2.29 billion in Metro Vancouver, including $470 million in the City of Vancouver proper.

One the most visible contributions of the coal sector has been as a key sponsor of the Vancouver Aquarium. In 2012 Teck Resources donated $12.5 million to the attraction, the aquarium’s largest-ever single donation.

It’s difficult to precisely calculate the of Vancouver’s coal exports, given that the city’s ports handle a variety of coal types, each with their own specific emissions profile.

But according to emissions formulas used by the Sierra Club, Vancouver’s 2017 coal exports will produce 99.8 million tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime.

For context, this is significantly higher than B.C.’s entire carbon footprint. In 2014, B.C. estimated that it produced 64.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent

It also means that B.C.’s existing coal exports are roughly as bad for the climate as anything scheduled to come out of the expansion.

The completed Trans Mountain expansion would move 215 million extra barrels of diluted bitumen per year. Depending on the kind of Alberta bitumen the pipeline will be moving at any one time, this means that total product shipped through the expansion will emit between 129 million and 158 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifecycle. 

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About Tristin Hopper