Climate change activists are vowing to fight plans to build a new coal export terminal on the Fraser River in Surrey and expand an existing one in North Vancouver.
Fraser Surrey Docks has applied to build a terminal in Surrey that would bring in thermal coal from Wyoming via the BNSF railway that runs through White Rock and Delta.
It proposes to export four million tonnes of coal a year initially, with potential to double that later.
Meanwhile, Neptune Terminals aims to increase its exports of B.C.-mined metallurgical coal used in steelmaking from 12 million to 18 million tonnes.
To activists like Kevin Washbrook, of the group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, it's another case of B.C. becoming the outlet for fossil fuels that will be burned in Asia and warm the planet toward dangerously irreversible levels.
"If these two plans go ahead, Metro Vancouver will be the largest exporter of coal in North America," Washbrook said.
That's anathema to a city and region that prides itself on being green and sustainable, he said.
An open letter was issued Wednesday opposing the coal export plans, with signatures from leading B.C. climate change experts Andrew Weaver and Marc Jaccard, as well as dozens of environmental groups and activists.
They're calling for a full public review.
But unlike plans for the Enbridge or Kinder Morgan oil pipelines, neither regulators nor politicians can stand in the way.
The proposals will both be decided by Port Metro Vancouver managers with no formal public meetings – voluntary or otherwise – or approvals by other agencies.
"This is a crazy idea," Washbrook said, adding Metro Vancouver coal exports may soon more carbon to the atmosphere than all the oil that would be exported through Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
"This is an issue of international importance and it can't be decided by a handful of staff at the port."
The Fraser Surrey Docks plan would see coal loaded onto barges, which would then sail to Texada Island for transfer to deep-sea freighters.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she's "very concerned" about the proposal and said Delta council has summoned port reps to discuss it.
"I think the coal dust is something people are really concerned about," she said.
Coal already rolls on the BNSF tracks through Tsawwassen to Westshore Terminals' export facility but Jackson said she'd want more information before more coal trains going through North Delta to the proposed Surrey terminal get the green light.
"I would have to have a lot more convincing that we would have no by product or coal dust emanating from those trains."
The two proposals would increase Port Metro Vancouver coal exports from 40 million to 54 million tonnes per year.
Port Metro Vancouver director of planning and development Jim Crandles said civic zoning doesn't apply but the applications have been referred to Surrey and North Vancouver for comment, and Delta and New Westminster have also been notified.
The port has also notified nearby residents.
Crandles said the port is doing a technical review that will consider environmental and neighbourhood issues such as noise and local air pollution, but not potential climate change implications.
"The port is here to facilitate trade," he said. "We will make sure the high standards the port is accustomed to are adhered to in both of these projects."
He expects decisions by year end for Neptune's application and early in the new year for Fraser Surrey Docks.
The Fraser Surrey Docks proposal calls for one coal train a day arriving and loading directly to barge, without coal being stockpiled on site.
Crandles said Fraser Surrey Docks is currently underused, so fewer trains have been going there than in the past and the increase for coal exports wouldn't come close to returning rail traffic to historic peak levels.
More coal trains to Neptune in North Vancouver would come through the region via the CP or CN rail lines.
U.S. coal opposition steering trains toward B.C.
The pressure to send more coal on trains through B.C.'s Lower Mainland is coming because the U.S. coal industry needs to tap new markets in Asia but has run into serious opposition in northwestern states.
Eric de Place, a researcher with the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, said six large coal export terminals have been proposed in Washington or Oregon but activist opposition has already killed one of them.
"There's something like an insurrection going on in Oregon and Washington," he said. "People are extremely angry."
The world's biggest coal producers are in the eastern U.S., de Place said, while the biggest consumers are in Asia.
"The road between those two goes through Washington and British Columbia," he said, noting domestic U.S. coal demand has sagged as buyers shift to cleaner energy sources.
For local residents in B.C. or the neighbouring states, he said, the terminals offer nothing but disadvantage – more coal trains, resulting rail and road traffic congestion and potential dust and noise pollution.
"You can't move that much coal to market and not have serious impacts," he said, adding there are many examples of dirty coal-handling facilties around the world and little evidence of it being moved cleanly.
In the case of Fraser Surrey Docks, he said, the potential risk of coal ending up in the Fraser River should be considered.
"It's a terrible idea for about 50 different reasons," he said. "But it's an absolute disaster in terms of greenhouse gas emissions."
Most of the U.S. coal heading to the west coast comes west from Wyoming's Powder River basin and would be burned for power.
De Place said one of the proposed U.S. coal terminals – North America's largest if it's built – would be a "gargantuan" 48-million tonne facility at Cherry Point, Washington, just south of White Rock.