The fox guarding the henhouse
Even recent history has a tendency to repeat itself. One year ago, in the depths of August, top bureaucrats at Port Metro Vancouver approved a permit for a new export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks to ship thermal coal from the U.S. But Fraser Surrey Docks has gone back to the port authority for a permit amendment in a desperate attempt to keep alive a project that has no economic future.
If you haven’t sent your comment letter to federal officials and Fraser Surrey Docks, do it now. We only have until Aug. 21.
Thermal coal is on its way into the dustbin of history, and good riddance. Coal is the biggest climate change villain and responsible for deadly air and water pollution anywhere it is burned.
The world is finally getting serious about kicking the coal habit, and now companies that dig it up and ship it around the world are rapidly going bankrupt, watching share prices plummet and taking risky financial gambles to stay alive even while selling their product at a loss. The only hope for coal companies in Montana and Wyoming has been to build west coast export terminals to access Asian markets.
With suppliers desperate as coal death spirals you’d think Fraser Surrey Docks might be well positioned to take advantage. Of the proposals for new coal ports, this one has always been the most likely to make it through all its approvals. But here’s the kicker: Fraser Surrey Docks still hasn’t been able to sign up any suppliers!
The proposal’s health and environmental risks have caused an unprecedented groundswell of opposition from residents, local governments and health authorities. It’s been embattled at every step, delaying an imagined construction date by three years. There is no business case. So why is this proposal still alive?
Because Port Metro Vancouver is a fundamentally broken public institution (and you should send in your comment letter right away to remind them what meaningful public consultation should look like).
Ok, I know that was a bit of a leap, but here’s the deal. The port’s approval allowed the proposal to move ahead on other permits and try to sell contracts to coal suppliers. The port was able to approve the proposal without proper assessment and despite local opposition (because of the way it is set up to operate under Canadian law and the ideology of the port’s current leaders).
As federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt recently reminded me in a relatively condescending letter, port authorities are governed by the Canada Marine Act and operate at “arm’s-length” from government oversight under their own Letters Patents. Under the reign of the current federal government, that arrangement has allowed Port Metro Vancouver to become increasingly corporatized and industry-captured (anyone surprised there?).
The problem is, Port Metro Vancouver has a fundamentally conflicting mandate. It’s supposed to promote and facilitate trade in the national interest and operate under its own revenues generated from leases and fees with terminal operators and shippers while also managing and regulating port lands in the public interest.
It makes for a classic “fox guarding the henhouse” regulatory situation. To make matters worse, the governing legislation sets the port up to operate like a corporation rather than a government body, with a board of directors overseeing a CEO, CFO and a slate of vice presidents. The majority of those directors are appointed by the Federal Transport Minister based on recommendations from… wait for it… port-related industries!
Other drastic changes under the current government have exacerbated this fundamentally undemocratic setup. In 2008, Port Metro Vancouver amalgamated a number of smaller local harbour commissions and port authorities in the region into its current corporate behemoth. Not too long after, two multi-jurisdictional bodies that had overseen development and environmental protection along the Fraser River and in the Burrard Inlet, with local, regional, provincial and federal representatives at the table, were dissolved. Their oversight and decision-making functions were handed over to the port authority.
When the government gutted environmental laws in 2012, things got a lot worse. It meant far fewer port development projects would trigger an assessment and gave Port Metro Vancouver the authority to determine if an assessment is necessary, and make up its own rules for anything that does not meet the threshold for a Canadian Environmental Assessment Act process.
So, given all these flaws in the port’s makeup, you can imagine that port leadership has some leeway in interpreting its mandate and determining how it operates in the world. If the folks at the top took the port’s role as a regulator in the public interest as seriously as promoting and facilitating trade, it would be possible to create a culture that values transparency, accountability and a balanced approach to port development.
Unfortunately, what Port Metro Vancouver seems to have now is a leadership team focused solely on helping its corporate customers get products to market no matter what they are, willing to approve any project that fits with its barebones land use plan, and can make a claim that environmental impacts can be mitigated. They refuse to consider anything outside the port’s narrow jurisdiction and they operate as industry allies.
Thanks to the watchdog Freedom of Information requests from our friends at Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, we know that staff routinely consult with industry insiders on public relations, sponsor corporate events and participate in industry coalitions and lobby groups like the Coal Alliance. And the port’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility has directly parroted coal lobbyist talking points straight to my face.
Here’s how I think their decision-making process happens on the inside:
- No economic case for the proposal submitted? We don’t care. The proponent just has to satisfy its shareholders – stranded assets on public port lands are the company’s problem.
- Local residents and governments upset they don’t have all the facts about impacts on their health and communities? Not our job to protect you, but we’ll ask the proponent to hire a consultant to produce some bogus studies based on the narrowest possible project scope.
- Think the people who have to live with industrial operations on port lands in a democracy should have a seat at the decision-making table? Well, that’s nice, but we’re only accountable to our customers and the federal government, whom we will refer to as our “shareholder”. But, just to throw them a bone and defend our reputation, we’ll beef up our PR budget for platitudes about environmental protection and videos about energy-saving LED light bulbs.
- What that about climate change? You think we should consider the impact of our decisions on planetary survival? Sorry, not in our mandate.
- Want us to change how we do things? Talk to the federal government.
Well, funny you should mention it, but there’s a federal election coming up in October, and Dogwood is throwing all its fight into ensuring our supporters exercise their right to vote for federal candidates who will stand up for B.C. and fix our broken democracy.
Until we have a federal government that will bring democracy back to the port authority and change laws to ensure we get the facts we deserve about local and global impacts of port development – and a meaningful seat for local communities at the decision-making table – we’ll continue to face risky fossil fuel export proposals that threaten our air, land and water.
Dogwood and our partners will continue to fight the wildly risky Fraser Surrey Docks thermal coal port proposal at every step of the way until it’s gone, but if you want to help us change the rules of the game, let’s elect ourselves a new federa
l government that will reign in the broken port authority. Click here to volunteer with a Dogwood organizing team.