Is there more to the story that we don’t know?

In this op-ed from SFU Urban Studies professor Anthony Perl, someone finally tackles the question of whether building new infrastructure for U.S. thermal coal exports is a wise investment for B.C.

Anyone paying a bit of attention to the myriad financial risks in the thermal coal export market won’t be surprised by this analysis, but you may be surprised to learn what I heard last week from Duncan Wilson, Port Metro Vancouver’s (PMV) vice president of corporate social responsibility.

Nowhere have I seen Fraser Surrey Docks required to provide a business case that supports its proposal to build a coal transshipment operation on its terminal, so I asked Wilson if the port considers the financial risks associated with permit applications and the answer was ‘no’.

Fraser Surrey Docks, according to Wilson, should have to satisfy its owner, Macquarie Infrastructure Partners, that the project makes good business sense, but port decision-makers apparently don’t have to care whether projects within their jurisdiction are risky investments. If the proponent complies with the land use plan, the lease agreement and can satisfy industry-friendly bureaucrats that the project won’t cause any immitigable, adverse environmental effects, then they’re good to go.

Then Wilson surprised me even more by agreeing that the market for thermal coal exports has no future. Coal transfer at Fraser Surrey Docks was likely only a short-term business opportunity, he said.

Not to worry, though, the equipment and rail improvements could easily be repurposed for another product in the future. Like what? Potash. Maybe agricultural products (if you ignore experts in the business who caution that once equipment is used for coal, there’s no going back).

So if everyone including port leaders agree the market for thermal coal exports to Asia is dying, if coal transshipment is at best a questionable short-term business opportunity, and if our waterfront could end up stuck with useless coal infrastructure – why on earth would we consider this project?

Either there’s something more to the Fraser Surrey Docks story that we don’t know about, or something in the regulatory system is terribly broken. Or maybe both.

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