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Vancouver Port Regulator Under Conflict of Interest Fire Over Coal Lobby Membership

With news of the Port of Vancouver ruffling the feathers of the federal government by issuing a permit for a jet fuel pipeline without so much as a heads up, the port authority’s integrity has been thrust into the spotlight yet again.

While the port has apologized to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, the thorny issue of the port conducting environmental reviews of projects, while profiting from the same projects, remains.

Complicating matters, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (which regulates the Port of Vancouver) is a member of the Coal Association of Canada — a lobby group that glosses over the impacts of burning coal on climate change and that has gained notoriety in recent weeks for spreading misinformation about the phase-out of coal-fired electricity in Alberta.

The port authority has also been outed in the past for a covert and intimate relationship with the Vancouver-based Coal Alliance, an aggressive lobby group with a membership that includes rail companies, export terminals and other lobby groups.

Meantime, the port authority was responsible for reviewing the $50-million Fraser Surrey Docks coal-transfer terminal that would export more than four million tonnes of thermal coal to Asian markets — which it approved in December 2015.

“If you’re going to be a member of some other organization or alliance and you approve the projects that are related to that membership, it puts into question the fairness of the decision-making process and leads one to question whether or not they’re biased — whether or not things are predetermined,” says Paula Williams, who co-founded Communities and Coal, a Vancouver-based organization that opposes the export of thermal coal from the port.

Port Authority Part of Coal Lobby, Also Responsible for Regulating

The transportation of coal has been critical to the port’s recent financial successes. In 2015, the port sent out 35 million tonnes of the stuff, compared to 25 million tonnes of grain, speciality crops and feed and 23 million tonnes of forest products — and that was a slow year on the coal front.

If the port authority was just serving as landlord, it would make sense for it to collaborate with coal lobby groups to push for increased exports and generate as much profit as possible for its owners.

But the port authority’s mandate also requires it to fulfill duties such as the “safety and security of all land and waters” and the “permitting of all projects proposed for the use of federal port land.” In a single word: regulating.

“They shouldn’t be doing both,” says Voters Taking Action Against Climate Change (VTACC) director Kevin Washbrook, who notes the port authority has approved every coal export project that’s come before it in recent years.

VTACC is one of four plaintiffs that have taken the port authority to court on allegations of bias and failing to consider climate change impacts when approving the permit for the Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal.

A federal court is currently evaluating a request by Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and Fraser Surrey Docks to toss out the lawsuit filed against them.

“That’s really why we’re taking them to court: we think the public interest isn’t being met by this dual mandate,” Washbrook told DeSmog Canada.

Port Authority Covertly Sponsored Coal Conference in 2013

A series of disturbing revelations about the port authority’s intimate relationship with the coal industry came out in late 2013, courtesy of digging by Voters Taking Action Against Climate Change.

First came the news the port authority had been swapping e-mails with National Public Relations (a firm connected with the Coal Alliance that has lobbied the federal government on behalf of Fraser Surrey Docks). The Vancouver Sun described the exchange as seeming “as if they were allies, rather than as a public regulator and private proponent.”

In one instance, the two entities traded information on a VTACC protest, with the port authority directing media inquiries to Alan Fryer, a senior consultant for National Public Relations and lobbyist for the Coal Alliance.

A month later, it was revealed the port authority covered up its sponsorship of the 2013 Coal Association of Canada conference, including a $5,000 contribution and golf swag, because it was concerned about “press and public backlash.” The Vancouver Sun noted the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority had publicly sponsored the conference in 2012.

“They get it in the sense that it doesn’t look good,” Washbrook says. “Whether they think that it’s actually a bad thing: I’m not sure.”

Washbrook notes the port authority’s response to pressure for more regional involvement and transparency has been to launch a Twitter feed, YouTube channel and run some TV commercials. None of those PR products mention coal at all, he says.

Tangled Web of Business Relationships 

Williams of Communities and Coal suggests it may also be worth paying attention to some other business relationships that encircle Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and Fraser Surrey Docks.

In 2011, SNC-Lavalin, the embattled Montreal-based engineering services firm, bought a 23 per cent share in AltaLink (an electricity transmission company) from Macquarie Essential Assets Partnership .

The partnership is owned by a subsidiary of the Macquarie Group, a member of which owns Fraser Surrey Docks.

In 2013, Fraser Surrey Docks contracted SNC-Lavalin to prepare the environmental impact assessment, which was described by Vancity credit union as “entirely inadequate” and criticized by activists as being limited in scope.

Then, in 2014, SNC-Lavalin sold AltaLink to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns BNSF Railway, the company transporting the coal to the Port of Vancouver. Both BNSF Railway and Fraser Surrey Docks are members of the Coal Alliance.

Williams emphasizes that a trail of prior business isn’t necessarily a problem. But given the port authority’s habit of getting a bit too cozy with private industry, it’s a trend that might be worth paying attention to in the future.

“[Vancouver Fraser Port Authority] should not have a say in the decision of whether or not to approve a project at the port,” she reiterates. “This should not happen. They should be removed from that. They can have an opinion and give their input, but they shouldn’t be part of the decision-making process.”

Citizens Push for More Input

Opposition to the way the port is doing business continues to build.

Washbrook notes that people in North Vancouver are fighting the proposed G3 grain terminal, while folks in Delta are concerned about the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project. Meanwhile, people in Richmond worry about Agricultural Land Reserve property being bought up and the small leaseholders the port is “shaking down” for exorbitant increases in water lot lease rates.

All have common interests, he says: more regional inputs, more representation, a more transparent and open processes.

If the VTACC lawsuit doesn’t get derailed by the port authority and Fraser Surrey Docks, the verdict could help shape the future conversation. But ultimately, solving the issue seems to come back to the federal government and its power to amend the Canada Marine Act to redefine the mandate of port authorities.

“I think there are discussions happening in Ottawa right now about how to reform the ports,” Washbrook says. “The question will be about how much of that is an inside discussion that tweaks things, and how much of it brings about meaningful reform.”

Image: Jason Mrachina/Flickr.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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