Exporting carbon: Canada's new asbestos?

By Briony Penn, February 2013

Climate policy experts are speaking out against various schemes to export more carbon from BC’s coastal ports.

Truck driver John Snyder retired to bucolic Fanny Bay to live the life, only to wake up one morning three years ago to find a notice on his doorstep—an invitation to an information session on the Raven Coal Mine, proposed five kilometres upstream of his home. 

After attending the meeting, Snyder launched into his new career as a citizen researcher on the impacts of coal mining on his community. With others, he set up the group CoalWatch. As he says, “It started with concerns about how the mine might contaminate our wells, and took off from there.” 

The coal underlying the Comox Valley is a soft bituminous coal that is only marketable at the moment as a metallurgical coal for steelmaking—at least if it is blended with better quality metallurgical coal. The Asian market for coal for steel production has been so hot in recent years that companies around the world have been looking to mine just about anything black to satisfy demand. 

But the Raven project wouldn’t be producing just coal. More than half of what gets mined will be left behind as waste rock—over a million metric tonnes a year proposed for Raven. It will also produce methane off-gases—over 127,000 cubic metres per day is projected. Snyder explains it this way: “The proposed waste rock will fill up a three-storey football field every year, and to offset the mine’s emissions, every person in the Comox Valley would have to park their cars each year it operates.” 

The combined leaching of acidic materials from the waste rock and the increasing effects of carbon on ocean acidification are another key worry in Fanny Bay, a community that derives its main revenue from shellfish farming. Impacts from acidification have already hit Snyder’s neighbours, the downstream shellfish farmers of Baynes Sound, a story that recently made national news. The Globe and Mail reported that farms like Island Scallops can’t grow their shellfish larvae in the ocean anymore; they die as the shells fail to form in the acidic water. 

Snyder isn’t budging from his mission to educate his community. “You either stick your head in the sand, move, or stand up for the place where you live.” 

But both federal and provincial governments are very supportive of the export of coal—as they are of the export of other fossil fuels. The resulting greenhouse gases—from both the mining and the burning in foreign lands—seems to trouble them little.

 

ACROSS THE WATER from Fanny Bay, Dr Mark Jaccard, a high-profile SFU expert on energy economics who has been vocal on the pricing of carbon, was arrested for trying to stop coal trains from the US reaching Vancouver ports. Flanked by other briefcase-toting professionals, he told the media that “the current willingness of—especially our federal government—to brazenly take actions that ensure we cannot meet scientifically- and economically-sound greenhouse gas reduction targets for Canada and the planet, leaves me with no alternative.” 

At UBC, Dr Kathryn Harrison, an MIT chemical engineering graduate who worked in the tar sands before obtaining her PhD in political science, has co-founded an advocacy organization, UBCC350, focused on drawing attention to “one of the most underappreciated and worrisome gaps in BC’s climate policies”—the exporting of climate change in the form of coal, oil and gas. 

Harrison and Jaccard are referring to federal and provincial goals of turning BC, and particularly the coast, into a giant conduit for exporting fossil fuels from both BC and elsewhere on the continent. As Harrison points out, there is a huge policy disconnect: “BC has got some laudable targets for reducing internal emissions, but has gone in the opposite direction in its export of emissions.” Potential exports from the new projects, she says, will “completely negate and even overwhelm BC’s internal greenhouse gas emissions.” These include proposed coal projects like Raven and their associated ports, coal coming from the US, proposed shale gas projects with their pipelines, liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facilities and their ports, and, of course, bitumen coming from the tar sands through the proposed pipelines and port infrastructures.

As UVic climate scientist (and Green Party candidate in the upcoming provincial election) Andrew Weaver has written, “The idea that we’re going to somehow run out of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels is misplaced. We’ll run out of our ability to live on the planet long before we run out of them.”

How much carbon are we poised to export from British Columbia? This was the central question pursued by Harrison and her newly-minted group of faculty, students and staff who, like Jaccard and Weaver, are bravely defying the usual strictures of the ivory towers. 

The figures are astonishing. Assuming everything we export is burned, BC is set to nearly triple our current exported annual emissions from 172 million tonnes to 461 million tonnes. Compare this to our current in-province emissions of 67 million tonnes based on the 2009 provincial carbon accounting figures. The Northern Gateway alone would increase carbon exports a further 86.4 million tonnes—which is more than all of BC’s in-house emissions alone. 

The next question, then, is why this sudden rush to ramp up and get it off the continent?

“The fossil fuel industries are like dogs to a bitch in heat,” says Arthur Caldicott, an energy researcher out of Victoria who has been tracking this issue over the last ten years. “One day they are all rushing to shale gas. The next day they are all rushing to LNG.” He explains that when natural gas shortages hit North America 12 years ago, the price hit all-time highs, luring investment into developing unconventional shale gas. By 2008, as the recession hit, natural gas production was increasing and the prices were collapsing. Investment in tar sands bitumen extracting and processing was well established and production was ramping up. And at the same time, the market for coal was dropping as electrical generation shifted to cheap natural gas. Says Caldicott, “All three fossil fuel industries—gas, oil, and coal—in North America are now caught in this position of being heavily invested, having lots of ‘product’ coming on stream but having a limited North American market to sell it to. There is a big pressure to justify the big debt, so they have to get the stuff to Asia to sell fast. If they don’t, the whole thing collapses.” 

As David Hughes, geologist and Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute states, “You just have to follow the money, with the current price of natural gas hitting $18/1000 cubic feet in Japan and $3.40 in Canada.” 

This offers an explanation for the increasingly bizarre schemes being proposed to coastal residents: five to eight (depending on who’s counting) LNG processing terminals in Kitimat, coal shuttle ports at various places including  Surrey Fraser Docks, Texada Island and Port Alberni, not to mention pipelines through seismic zones and tankers travelling through narrow channels and the wild waters of Hecate Strait. “Don’t expect the dogs to be thinking a lot about what they are doing in the long term,” suggests Caldicott.

 

AT UBC, Kathryn Harrison raises the sticky policy question of how to deal with this issue. “We don’t use these fossil fuels, we export them, and get very wealthy off it, but this is like continuing to prosper by exporting tobacco or asbestos. It is legal but the ethics are questionable.” 

There are definite parallels to the asbestos issue. On one hand, the international treaties around climate assign responsibility to each country for the emissions that occur only within its borders. It’s a pragmatic policy based on what those countries can most easily measure. Still, some countries have more climate-friendly policies than others. Reminiscent of Canada’s asbestos exports, what happens when a jurisdiction like BC, with a regulatory framework and carbon tax, simply offloads our carbon-intensive manufacturing emissions to China, which doesn’t? Given that China’s emissions have been rising in part due to increased demand from North Americans for Chinese manufactured goods, where in this loop are we, the consumers, responsible for our carbon consumption? Harrison believes “consumers share responsibility, as do taxpayers because we are funding public enterprises through it.” 

However, unlike asbestos, our fossil fuel exports come back to kick us—and BC clamshells—in the teeth; there are no international boundaries in the atmospheric and oceanic commons.

Someone who has taken a stab at a policy directive around exporting emissions with our resources is Matt Horne at the Pembina Institute. He recently floated the idea of a carbon tax on all exported emissions to raise revenue for global climate change solutions. Exporting carbon to countries without strong climate policy, he notes, “simply moves the planet closer to dangerous and irreversible climate change.” Horne argues in his proposal that although BC can’t force policy on other countries, we “could nudge things in the right direction.” If a $70 per tonne carbon tax was placed on exports, the province would raise about $3.5 billion per year. He points out that they do this in Norway in the oil and gas sector and the funds go directly to international aid focused on climate. He advises: “Just make [the tax] modest and put it back into the sectors where they need investment to retool…With LNG you could also get the limited number of national producers to agree to the tax, just like OPEC.”

Minister Terry Lake, in a written response to Horne’s proposal specifically for LNG exports, claims that British Columbians would never allow the tax dollars collected to be sent overseas and that LNG represents “an opportunity of a lifetime for BC.” He even argues that LNG provides “climate solutions for Asia.” 

Critics beg to differ on both counts. Horne points to emerging research into LNG markets that shows that while LNG might offset some coal use somewhere, it mostly increases emissions when it goes to Korea and Japan to replace nuclear, other regions to replace the more expensive alternatives like solar, and new regions to boost manufacturing capacity. “One thing we really know is that whatever we export will end up in the atmosphere and the argument that it will substitute more carbon-heavy fuels is simplistic.” 

Harrison argues that the added internal emissions from processing the coal or shale gas into its transportable form of LNG will make it virtually impossible for us to meet our BC 2020 emissions reduction targets. Current proposals to significantly increase shale gas production and build the first three LNG terminals on the coast are expected to contribute up to 16 million tonnes of CO2 per year, a 25 percent increase in our provincial emissions alone. The governing Liberals and NDP opposition have embraced both shale gas development and LNG exports, but have yet to say how they will reconcile the resulting greenhouse gas emissions with BC’s legislative target to reduce within-province emissions by one-third by 2020. UBCC350 has sent a letter raising the issue to the Premier but she hasn’t yet responded, “which is striking,” Harrison adds, “because most of us live in her riding.”

Critics also counter Lake’s “opportunity of a lifetime” characterization. Caldicott sums it up this way: “Support from the provincial government is an act of desperation. The BC government is now caught in the dilemma of where to obtain revenues. There aren’t any options left in natural resources. There’s no pot of gold for us with wood, electricity, coal, or with natural gas. The rush to LNG is coming from an industry which is over-invested in unconventional gas projects and has no market for its product. All the gas-producing regions, including the United States, are rushing to export their heavily subsidized LNG. That is partly why the NDP sound like the Liberals; they have no place else to turn. In the end, any government will continue to reduce regulatory and royalty requirements for these industries to such a degree that there will be no financial benefit to British Columbians to go with the environmental costs.” 

The Post Carbon Institute’s Hughes elaborates on those costs: “British Columbians will take the collateral damage for the impact of the vented methane, the environmental impacts of water use, disposal of fracking fluids, and carving up of the forest for pads, pipelines and roads, while the corporations will take the profit. Christy Clark would argue that we get royalties, taxes and jobs, but these are short-term benefits compared to the longer-term energy security and environmental interests of Canadians, which are being sold out.” 

Dr Harrison admits, “there is no magic bullet.” The policy choices are complicated—ranging from taxing exports to just saying no. The first step is “to acknowledge and talk about it.” 

Snyder and the citizens at CoalWatch are certainly ready to talk about it. The public comment period for the Raven Coal application comes up next month when the proponent, Compliance Energy Corporation, submits its application for the 180-day review. “One thing for sure,” says Snyder, “there will be no decision made on this mine until after the election, so we want to make it an election issue.”

There will be many British Columbians wanting to make these burgeoning projects and the export of fossil fuels an election issue. With the kind of expertise lining up to debate and the high stakes, it will be something to watch. 

Briony Penn has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows. She thinks the situation for the environment has never been so bad, but the forces for change have never looked so good.