In an earlier post I noted that British Columbia presently mines, transports and ships metallurgical coal used in the steel industry in Asia. However in recent months there has been a push to expand our coal exports to include vast amounts of US thermal coal used to produce electricity. Washington, Oregon and California have all said no to the export of this excess thermal coal through their ports. So why do we think its okay to ship the coal through British Columbia ports? There are very few jobs associated with coal export and we know that coal combustion is the dirtiest way to produce electricity. In fact, North American markets are drying up for this thermal coal due to an explosion of shale gas production and shale gas burns much cleaner and more efficiently than coal. Even China recently announced plans to significantly reduce their use of coal.
In order to increase our export capacity for thermal coal, Fraser Surrey docks have proposed the creation of a Direct Transfer Coal Facility. This facility would transfer coal from trains to barges for transport to a handling facility at Texada Island. There coal would be stored and loaded onto ships destined for the Asian market. I understand the desire of Fraser Surrey docks to expand their operations, but is coal really the only option? I think not.
According to Port Metro Vancouver “Container traffic through the west coast of Canada is expected to double over the next 10 to 15 years and nearly triple by 2030“. In my earlier post mentioned above, I pointed out how the Port of Prince Rupert seized upon some of their natural geographical advantages to host a modern container facility. Presently their container facility does not have a capacity for destuffing and restuffing containers upon their arrival from Asia. But by adding such a capacity, hundreds of local jobs would be created.
This week I toured the Alberni Inlet and the port in Port Alberni to get a sense of what potential for growth existed there. The CEO of the Port Authority, Zoran Knezevic, together with the Port Authority directors that I met, shared a vision that has enormous potential for both local job creation and the environment. It sure looks like a win-win proposition for industry, the citizens of Port Alberni, their Huu-ay-aht First Nation partners, Fraser Surrey docks and Vancouver as a whole.
At present, container ships entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Asia and elsewhere will first head to Seattle to unload/load. There they will typically spend a day before moving on to either Deltport or facilities on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet. Another day or so will be spent in the Vancouver region before the ships head back to Asia. Many of the containers unloaded/loaded in the Burrard Inlet are put onto or taken off trucks which drive across the city to the existing distribution and industrial centres largely located on the south arm of the Fraser River. The trucks — more than a million of them a year — add to traffic congestion in the Metro Vancouver area.
So what’s the solution? Port Alberni is proposing to build a container trans-shipment terminal in partnership with the Huu-ay-aht First Nation about 35 km down the inlet from the town of Port Alberni. The facility would be used to unload container ships from Asia and reload their cargo onto barges that would head to either Seattle or Vancouver. The shipping industry wins as their large container ships only unload/load once and save the ~4 day trip to Seattle, Vancouver and back out the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Vancouver wins as the barges can now travel up the south arm of the Fraser River directly to the industrial/distribution sites thereby eliminating more than a million truck trips a year off Metro Vancouver roads. Fraser Surrey Docks win as they can grow to include an expanded container handling facility which would allow them to load/unload trains with cargo instead of coal. And with the expected doubling of container traffic in the next 10 to 15 years, there is indeed a need for additional container handling capacity.
Let’s hope that Fraser Surrey docks, the Port of Metro Vancouver, the Port Alberni Port Authority and the BC Government can all get together to work this out. After all, we all win as the power basin thermal coal stays in the ground.