British Columbia continues to expand its exports of the dirtiest fossil fuel on Earth. And even though Canada’s federal government has promised to end thermal coal exports by 2030, B.C.’s richest person keeps increasing his investment in Canada’s busiest coal export terminal.
Last year Westshore Terminals in Delta, B.C., located on Roberts Bank near the mouth of the Fraser River south of the City of Vancouver, exported over 16 million tonnes of thermal coal, part of a dramatic shift towards thermal coal at a facility that until 2021 had primarily exported metallurgical coal used in the production process of steel.
The International Energy Agency recently reported that 2022 saw record-high global coal consumption. This was disastrous news for efforts to mitigate global warming, coming as it did amidst the hottest month in recorded history, dire warnings about polar ice cap loss, and countless wildfires raging across the northern hemisphere.
Because thermal coal emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than other fossil fuels, it is “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet,” according to former NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
U.S. coal country’s Pacific terminal
The majority of the coal moved through the coal port arrives by train from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, home to the largest coal mines in the U.S. Wyoming is the top coal-producing state – the heart of “coal country.”
The vast coal resources of the Powder River Basin are almost all federally owned. As part of its climate action plan, the Obama administration had imposed a moratorium on new coal-mining leases on public lands. In March 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that lifted the moratorium, breathing new life into a fossil fuel business that most had assumed was on the way out. Thus far, the Biden administration does not seem to have plans to reinstate the moratorium.
With proposals for new coal export terminals in Washington State and Oregon having been rejected due to environmental concerns and assertions of Indigenous rights, B.C.’s southern coal port is basically the only way out through the Pacific Northwest to Asian markets. And thanks to a loophole that calculates emissions partly on distance travelled from the site of extraction to port, these U.S. thermal coal exports barely pay any carbon tax in B.C.
The other major coal port on B.C.’s south coast, North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminals, emphasizes on its webpage that it only ships steelmaking coal.
Thermal coal shipped from U.S. coal country to Westshore Terminals is B.C.’s dirty little secret.
Profiting while the world burns
Why is B.C. still exporting thermal coal at all, and who is benefiting from this anachronistic and harmful business?
B.C.’s richest person, Jim Pattison, whose estimated $13 billion fortune has more than doubled since 2020, is the largest shareholder of Westshore Terminals, the busiest coal port not just on Canada’s west coast but on the entire Pacific coast of the western hemisphere.
The railway that brings the thermal coal from Wyoming and Montana to Canada’s west coast is BNSF, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway. According to Forbes, Buffet is the fifth richest person in the world with a net worth of well over $100 billion.
Pattison has claimed in recent years to prioritize concerns about climate change in all his major investment decisions. In a 2021 profile by CBC News, for example, Pattison said, “When we're talking about buying a company today, the first thing we're looking at [is] where does it fit into the environmental issues side of things.”
But even as B.C. experienced a record-setting wildfire season, which began earlier than usual this spring, Pattison continued to expand his financial stake in his booming thermal coal export business.
Doubling down on thermal coal
In June, Pattison bought another $15 million worth of Westshore shares, bringing his total holdings in the coal port and its operations to close to $800 million.
In addition to controlling over 40 per cent of Westport Terminals’ shares, a subsidiary of the Jim Pattison Group provides management services and the coal port’s board includes Pattison’s director of legal services Nick Desmarais as well as former B.C. NDP Premier Glen Clark, who recently retired as Pattison’s chief operating officer.
Pattison’s decision to double down on his coal export business comes despite the fact that in the past couple of years Westshore Terminals’ business has dramatically shifted towards thermal coal exports.
In 2021, thermal coal made up just over half of exports from Westshore. The shift accelerated in 2022, with thermal coal accounting for over 68 per cent of the terminal’s total coal exports. The company’s most recent Annual Information Form, furthermore, states that “thermal coal will continue to represent a higher percentage of shipments for the foreseeable future.”
Does the foreseeable future include 2030, now less than six and a half years away? Because that’s the date by which Canada’s federal government has promised to phase out thermal coal exports altogether.
Westshore’s corporate reports for shareholders, and their contracts with U.S. coal mining companies, suggest Pattison and the other coal profiteers are counting on the federal Liberals shifting the goalposts for the coal phaseout – or a change of government.
While Westshore is investing in new facilities to add exports of potash by 2026, the company is in the coal export business for the long haul. They hold options to extend their lease with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority through to 2066, and just two years ago they entered into a new agreement with Global Coal Sales Group to export coal mined in Montana until 2035.
As with so many other major investors in fossil fuel, the success of Pattison’s bet on coal depends on governments failing to live up to their climate commitments. Pattison and Buffett’s ongoing profits from Westshore and BNSF both contribute to and depend on the continued destruction of a liveable planet.
Under the radar
With a fortune built on car sales, commercial fishing, logging, coal exports, and other resource industries, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jim Pattison is a climate hypocrite.
The bigger issue is that Westshore’s shift to thermal coal has flown under the radar in B.C., and that the province’s nominally social democratic government has done nothing about it.
Earlier this year another former NDP premier, John Horgan, accepted a position with another large coal company. His appointment to the board of directors of a planned spinoff from Teck was first reported in a Globe and Mail story published late evening Pacific Time on March 31 – the very same day Horgan retired from serving as a member of B.C.’s legislative assembly.
When asked by reporters about his new corporate appointment, the former premier stressed that his coal company mined metallurgical coal, not thermal coal. Horgan noted “there are better ways to generate electricity,” referring to the messy business of thermal coal.
None of the news stories about the former premier’s corporate post made reference to the ramp up of thermal coal exports that began on his watch. CBC News, for example, quoted former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts defending Horgan’s new gig: “He can bring a lot to the table … so I don't have an issue with it at all." The article did not mention the fact Watts is also on the board of directors of Westshore Terminals.
The continued and expanded export of thermal coal from B.C. highlights an embarrassing gap between climate rhetoric and action, especially for a provincial NDP government that boasts of having “North America’s most progressive climate action plan.”
The stealthy expansion of B.C.’s thermal coal exports is a sign of the times – as decades of greenwashing and unmet climate targets give way to a more terminal-phase capitalism in which those at the top no longer bother to pretend their system isn’t destroying the Earth, while at the same time climate-concerned liberal and social democratic governments continue to facilitate the expansion of fossil fuel production.
Two years ago, Shell Oil partnered with the NDP government to found the B.C. Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy, touting it as part of “transforming our business and finding new opportunities to provide more lower-carbon energy such as biofuels, hydrogen, charging for electric vehicles and electricity generated by solar and wind power.” Since then, Shell has changed its tune. Along with other oil giants, Shell has recently made a “u-turn” on their own climate pledges, putting corporate profits ahead of low-carbon energy goals.
The B.C. government’s biggest partnership with Shell is of course the $40-billion LNG Canada megaproject. Talks are currently underway with Premier David Eby and BC Hydro to electrify phase two of the terminal. Incidentally, B.C.’s LNG industry and government proponents tout it as a “bridge fuel” that will help countries reduce emissions by replacing coal-fired power. Not only is it a dubious talking point because of what studies have revealed about the overall life-cycle emissions of fracking and LNG, but it makes no sense given that B.C. is also ramping up thermal coal exports to some of the very same markets buying the LNG.
Taxing the climate vandals
There is an alternative to the status quo of government-as-facilitator of oil, gas, and coal expansion. We could simply tax the climate vandals and the billionaire fossil fuel barons as part of the transition in which they are regulated and mandated out of existence as quickly as possible. The public money raised could finance a just transition as well as vast expansions of public services and infrastructure required for climate mitigation and adaptation.
Steep taxes or levies on thermal coal exports would be a great place to start. This is precisely what B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark proposed back in April 2017, at the end of her closely fought election campaign against Horgan – and just one month after Trump had lifted the moratorium on new coal mine leases on U.S. federal lands.
Partly in response to Trump’s trade war moves on softwood lumber, and partly as a last-ditch appeal to environmentally-conscious voters, Clark promised to apply a $70 per tonne levy on thermal coal exports. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Clark urged the federal government to ban exports of “the most carbon dioxide-intensive form of conventional fossil fuel energy,” and promised to use provincial powers to stop thermal coal if necessary.
There is nothing stopping new B.C. Premier David Eby from dusting off former Liberal premier Clark’s proposal, even though so much as discussing B.C.’s dirty little thermal coal secret is bound to cause some awkwardness within the province’s political class. Such are the inconveniences of facing the reality of the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.
Neoliberal governance in which governments treated fossil fuel corporations as partners in mitigating climate change and transitioning to low-carbon energy has clearly failed, and now the oil, gas, and coal profiteers are increasingly no longer even pretending to care.
The era of greenwashing does not need to be followed by an era of conceding defeat. There is an alternative, but, as a recent Los Angeles Times editorial put it forcefully, it’s going to require strict regulations and mandates as well as political clarity:
“It should be obvious by now that fossil fuel companies have no real plans to change in response to the climate crisis. And that the only way forward is without them…
Remaining frenemies with fossil fuel companies in the naive hope they will see the light on climate change is a losing proposition for humanity. It’s good that more people are starting to recognize that, though it will take political leadership to kick the recalcitrant fossil fuel industry to the curb and build a sustainable economy right now.”
Time is short. There is no excuse for continuing to expand B.C.’s thermal coal exports.