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City of Vancouver takes leadership on coal: highlights of yesterday’s hearing

Three business representatives and three climate stability advocates faced off before the Vancouver City Council to comment on the motion that City staff “report back on a bylaw to prevent the expansion of, or creation of new, coal export infrastructure within the City of Vancouver."

There are no current coal expansion proposals before the City, so industry concerns focussed on reputational damage to coal. Council made clear the motion arose from community concerns about health impacts of coal dust and presenters discussed current research. Unions raised concerns about the motion’s economic and jobs impacts. Council and presenters discussed the distinction between metallurgical coal mined in BC and the thermal coal mined in the US that is driving port expansion proposals.  Councillors and speakers debated the role of all levels of government in addressing climate change.

Reputational damage to coal

The unions and business were concerned about reputational damage. Scott Lenny of the United Steelworkers Union which has 3,000 members who work primarily in northern coal mines stated that the union, took no position on the particular motion but about “the growing anti-coal sentiment and the increasing call for no more.”

Ken Peacock of the Business Council of BC spoke extensively on the importance of Port of Metro Vancouver to global market access and said the motion would send the signal to shippers that BC and the City of Vancouver are not “open for business.”

Mayor Robertson strongly objected to the perception that Vancouver is not “open for business,” given its diverse businesses and high rate of economic growth relative to other jurisdictions. Peacock asserted that the end result of limiting coal exports in the Vancouver region would be sending the coal to other ports, not a net reduction of coal. He found the idea of unilaterally limiting coal problematic for a small, trade dependent jurisdiction like B.C. Councillor Meggs noted, “We recycle but not everybody does. We do it because it is the right thing to do.”

Comments by climate stability advocates suggested coal’s dirty reputation is warranted. Kevin Washbrook of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change noted that coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change both historically and currently. He discussed the deadlines we are facing, such as the statement by the International Energy Agency says that new coal infrastructure over the next five years would lock in dangerous climate change.  

Climate stability advocate Duncan Wlodarczak referenced an excellent Vancouver Sun article on research stating that scientists have underestimated the rate of climate change and at current emission rates we will surpass the atmosphere’s capacity to hold carbon without devastating impacts by 2024 or sooner. “As someone who is under 30, this is very concerning,” he said. “I hope this issue will not be a political issue because it is in fact a physics issue.”

Dr. Erica Frank, a UBC public health professor stated that, as an epidemiologist, “There will be no public health issue in our lifetime, or that of our children, that will be more serious than climate change.  That no scourge will affect people more grievously than climate change will over the next century.  And that our only choice is how long will we let this grief go on.... Such a product need not be the cornerstone of our economy.”

Jobs: now vs the future

Rob Axton of the Longshoreman’s Union, with 6,000 members, stated the growth of coal terminals is “nothing but good” and warned the City against “saying ‘no’ to the future.” Mayor Robertson noted that no current jobs would not be affected by the motion – it is forward looking. Councillor Meggs noted the absence of negative statements in the motion regarding either coal or those currently employed by the coal industry.

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