In recent years, a new “supply-side” climate politics has emerged as activists have turned their attention from fossil fuel combustion to fossil fuel extraction and transport. This article investigates conditions for success of anti–fossil-fuel activism by comparing the fate of two proposed coal terminals on either side of the Canada–United States border. Both cases highlight that fossil fuel transport infrastructure is especially vulnerable to opposition as a result of concentrated costs and limited economic benefits in transit jurisdictions that did not produce the fossil fuels in question. Still, not all contexts are equally amenable to supply-side contestation. Institutional differences explain approval of a new coal port in Canada, while a similar US facility was rejected: a weaker environmental assessment regime and more limited opportunities for local government and Indigenous vetoes. However, the regulator’s subsequent withdrawal of the still-pending Canadian terminal’s permit five years later reveals that delay can be as good as victory for opponents when markets for fossil fuels decline.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment reframed climate change in terms of a rapidly depleting “carbon budget” (Pachauri et al. 2014), prompting a new focus on “unburnable” fossil fuel reserves (McGlade and Ekins 2015; McKibben 2012). Activists redirected their attention from fossil fuel combustion to extraction and transport, exemplified by campaigns against coal mines, fracking, and pipelines. This new “supply-side” climate politics has drawn the attention of scholars, who have examined opposition to fossil fuel extraction and transport (Bomberg 2017; Cheon and Urpelainen 2018; Gravelle and Lachapelle 2015; Green and Denniss 2018; Lazarus and van Asselt 2018; Piggot 2018), economics of supply constraints (Jaccard et al. 2018; Richter et al. 2018), policy instruments to restrict supply (Le Billon and Kristoffersen 2019), international coordination on fossil fuel production (Asheim et al. 2019; Piggot et al. 2018), and the ethics of fossil fuel production (Kartha et al. 2018).
This article builds on that growing literature by comparing the fate of two coal port proposals: the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) in the US state of Washington and Fraser Surrey Docks’ Direct Transfer Coal Facility (FSD) in British Columbia (BC), Canada. Both proposed to export coal from US mines in Montana and Wyoming along the same rail lines across Washington State, with the exception of a short segment north to Canada (Figure 1). The article seeks to explain two outcomes: why the Canadian project was initially approved, while its US counterpart was rejected, and why the Canadian regulator subsequently reversed its decision and withdrew FSD’s permit.
Comparative analysis offers several insights concerning opposition to fossil fuel supply. Both cases reveal the importance of political variation along the fossil fuel supply chain. Transport infrastructure is vulnerable to local opposition because it creates few jobs in comparison to more employment-intensive extraction, often in jurisdictions that do not extract fossil fuels. Cross-national comparison also reveals ways in which political institutions can be more or less receptive to anti–fossil fuel opposition. The greater role of state and local governments in the US project review, the clearer veto power of a US Indian tribe compared to a Canadian First Nation, and a stronger US environmental assessment regime all contributed to initially divergent permitting decisions. However, subsequent reversal of the Canadian project’s approval reveals that even a business-friendly regulator may switch allegiance to other sectors as markets for fossil fuels decline.
Distributive Politics of Fossil Fuel Supply
The politics of fossil fuel supply depends not only on the magnitude of costs and benefits but also on their distribution (Olson 1965). Broadly diffused costs and benefits, not least mitigation of global warming, present a greater organizing challenge than costs and benefits concentrated within a local community.
Energy projects often present a classic “NIMBY” challenge of locally concentrated costs and broadly diffused benefits. In a recent review, Carley et al. (forthcoming) attribute the literature’s inconsistencies to differences in study design. Although these differences are undoubtedly a factor, it is nonetheless surprising that the authors do not explore differences among energy projects. After all, a wind farm’s obstruction of waterfront views is rather different from fears of drinking water contamination from fracking, though even the former has been sufficient to prompt influential opposition in some communities (Stokes 2013). The fraction of community members who stand to share economic benefits can also impact local support (Boudet et al. 2016; Gravelle and Lachapelle 2015). In the first major study of anti–fossil fuel activism, Cheon and Urpelainen (2018) offer insights concerning motives, strategies, and impact of campaigns against fracking, Keystone XL, and coal plants but do not consider how the politics of extraction, transport, and combustion might be qualitatively different, nor has the growing literature on supply-side activism distinguished between extraction and transport (Green and Denniss 2018; Piggot 2018; Piggot et al. 2018).
Yet there are reasons to anticipate that the location of a project along the fossil fuel supply chain will have implications for the balance of costs and benefits (Harrison 2015). Consider first potential economic benefits. The most salient benefit, jobs, tends to be concentrated at the two ends of the supply chain: extraction and combustion. In between, transport of fossil fuels by rail and pipeline typically creates limited employment. In the case of coal, mining and coal-fired electricity generation in the United States account for 56,000 and 46,000 jobs, respectively, while distribution and transport contribute just 1,000 jobs (National Association of State Energy Officials and Energy Futures Initiative 2019).
This economic difference is further amplified by geography. Rural communities are often dependent on extractive industries. McAdam and Boudet (2012, 198) conclude, “To put it as starkly as possible, company towns … are key to an understanding of which communities do not mobilize and which projects get built.” Similarly, Boudet et al. (2016) find greater support for fracking in counties with current jobs in natural resource sectors and potential employment in local shale gas plays. In contrast, communities that host rail and port infrastructure often have more diverse economic opportunities, not least shipment of other goods. Transport over long distances also means that pipelines and railroads often cross borders into jurisdictions that did not produce the fossil fuels in question and are thus less beholden to the fossil fuel industry (Harrison 2015; Hoberg 2013).
Turning to costs, concentrated local impacts of fossil fuels on air and water quality are likely to be more politically salient than globally diffused impacts on climate. Local opposition also may be motivated by nonenvironmental costs, such as noise, violation of Indigenous communities’ rights, decline in property values, and obstruction of other economic activities, as exemplified by farmers’ opposition to fracking in Australia (Curran 2017). As with benefits, the salience of costs also can be expected to vary along the supply chain. While there are environmental costs at the point of extraction, coal-mining communities tend to be inured to the downsides of resource development (McAdam and Boudet 2012). In contrast, environmental and economic costs of transport infrastructure loom large in communities that have not experienced them previously. Moreover, linear infrastructure, such as pipelines and railroads, has more immediately adjacent neighbors than point sources to experience reductions in air quality and property values.
Consistent with this, Hoberg (2013) notes that opposition to tar sands pipelines has often turned on local impacts, including risks of pipeline breaks and tanker spills and violation of Indigenous rights. Cheon and Urpelainen (2018) similarly highlight the importance of potential groundwater contamination in the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. In contrast, however, Gravelle and Lachapelle (2015) find greater support among residents closest to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which they attribute to anticipated construction jobs. Local communities may represent a microcosm of the country, in which majority support for economic benefits coexists with passionate minority opposition.
A final factor influencing salience of costs and benefits is a distinction between new and existing facilities. Protection of existing jobs typically will carry greater weight than creation of hypothetical new jobs, since those whose current jobs are at risk know who they are, in contrast to the beneficiaries of future jobs. That said, unions can play a critical role in both defending existing jobs and advocating for new ones. Relevant to this analysis, existing US coal producers sought to access markets in Asia via new shipping terminals in both Canada and the United States. One would expect stronger pressure to defend current mining jobs in coal-dependent states than support for hypothetical jobs at new port facilities in noncoal states.
Just as political institutions can shape demand-side climate politics (Harrison and Sundstrom 2010a), some institutional contexts may be more amenable than others to opposition to fossil fuel supply and transport (Green and Denniss 2018). Cross-national comparison of otherwise-similar projects offers an opportunity to examine the impact of political institutions. This article considers three institutional differences: strength of environmental assessment regimes and governmental and nongovernmental veto players.
Environmental assessment regimes are especially relevant to permitting of new projects. Bernstein (1955) first identified the risk of agency capture, in which regulators over time become sympathetic to the targets of regulation. Strategies to avoid regulatory capture include inclusive and transparent procedures. To that end, the US Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) provide guarantees of notice and comment rule making and public hearings. In Canada, notice and comment is typically employed, but with no equivalent to the APA, procedures can vary greatly. Moreover, 2012 amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act shifted responsibility for many environmental assessments from the independent Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to agencies with closer ties to industry, including local port authorities. One would expect the greater independence and inclusivity of the US regime to increase the likelihood of rejection.
Political scientists have long focused on the impact of institutional veto points and players on public policy (Immergut 1990; Tsebelis 2000). Veto power is especially valuable for supply-side campaigns that seek to block new projects rather than advance specific policy proposals. Two forms of veto are examined here. The first is a governmental veto afforded by federalism and multilevel governance. All else being equal, more governments with independent authority to approve or reject a project mean a greater likelihood of rejection. Szeman (2017) argues that the fact of pipelines crossing borders mobilizes new governmental actors with “distinct and conflicting imperatives.” Similarly, Hoberg (2013) stresses the significance of “additional veto points” when pipelines cross jurisdictional boundaries. Although one would expect that to be a factor in both the Canadian and US federations, Canada is a more decentralized federation (Dardanelli et al. 2019), including with respect to environmental policy (Harrison 2000), suggesting greater opportunities for subnational veto in the Canadian case.
A second form of veto is the exercise of legally enforceable rights, most notably those of Indigenous peoples. In BC, with few exceptions, First Nations never ceded their traditional rights and title via treaties. These unextinguished rights were acknowledged by amendments to Canada’s constitution in 1982. Court interpretation of the state’s procedural obligations to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples has proven a persistent obstacle to pipeline development (Hoberg 2013). However, the courts have also been explicit that Indigenous rights do not constitute a “veto” over economic development.1 Treaties were more common at the time of colonial settlement in the United States, though also subject to modern judicial interpretation. The role of Indigenous communities on either side of the border would be expected to depend on their interests in a given project and the particulars of their legal claims.
Thus far, the discussion has focused on domestic politics and institutions. Harrison and Sundstrom (2010b) similarly employed a comparative approach, but with attention to two avenues through which international forces impact domestic politics: environmental treaties that both amplify domestic ambition and offer reassurance of comparable commitment by trading partners, and international trade, which tends to reinforce domestic opposition via claims of negative impacts on business competitiveness.
Perhaps surprisingly, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had little relevance to North American coal port proposals. When the project proposals in question emerged, the United States had declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada was in the process of withdrawing. Yet, it not clear that that would have mattered in any case. The Convention’s approach of assigning responsibility to states for emissions within their own borders presumes a demand-side approach to climate policy. While that is compatible with constraints on fossil fuel supply when the fossil fuels are produced and consumed within the same country, the political economy of supply and demand diverges in the case of fossil fuel exports (Harrison 2015). Coal typically is not very emissions intensive at the point of extraction, while combustion emissions are the responsibility of the receiving country. In the absence of treaty constraints, trade influences are potentially more problematic, however. Canada and the United States were signatories to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which ensures free flow of goods, including fossil fuels, across their shared border. Moreover, growing demand for coal in Asia was the impetus for both projects.
The case studies that follow employ process tracing, drawing on publicly available government reports, court documents, interest group websites, and media accounts in both countries. My understanding of the US case was confirmed by four interviews with individuals involved in anti-coal opposition. For the Canadian case, I submitted two dozen Access to Information requests to the Port of Vancouver.2 I was a member of the board of directors of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, a small environmental group involved in opposition to FSD. I have drawn on my own observation of public events but not on confidential conversations or correspondence.
As the fracking revolution prompted a dramatic increase in US natural gas production and a corresponding price decline, retiring coal-fired power plants were disproportionately replaced by gas. US reliance on coal plummeted from 50 percent of electricity generation in 2005 to less than 25 percent in 2019.3 In response, US coal producers sought new markets for their growing surplus. Between 2010 and 2012, proposals emerged for seven new terminals along the Pacific coast, which collectively planned to export 200 million metric tons per year of US coal to growing markets in Asia.
In February 2011, Pacific International Terminals (PIT) announced its intention to build a US$ 600 million terminal with capacity to export 54 million metric tons of bulk cargo, including up to 48 million metric tons of coal. The location was Cherry Point, fifteen miles north of Bellingham, Washington (Figure 2).4 Peabody Energy, then the United States’ largest coal producer, committed to use Gateway Pacific as its primary port to Asia.
The GPT required federal, state, and local approvals. Federal responsibility for environmental assessment under NEPA fell to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the permitting of facilities in navigable waters. The Corps was mandated to consult with other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would be responsible for regulating environmental impacts if the facility were to be approved and for ensuring federal compliance with the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty with the Lummi Nation, whose reserve is adjacent to Cherry Point. At the state level, the Department of Ecology (DOE) was responsible for approval under the State Environmental Protection Act and Shoreline Management Act. Locally, Whatcom County required approval of the elected seven-member Whatcom County Council. In 2012, the federal, state, and local “co-leads” committed to conduct joint hearings, while reserving their rights to render independent decisions.
The deep waters at Cherry Point offer a site of both ecological and economic significance. Cherry Point is designated a state aquatic reserve in recognition of the unique habitat for herring, salmon, and orcas, but with cutouts for piers serving two refineries and a smelter. A fourth site was reserved for an earlier incarnation of the GPT, approved in 1997. That permit was challenged by local environmental groups, yielding a 1999 court settlement in which the proponent committed to conducting environmental baseline studies.5 Concurrently, the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan was developed and finalized in 2010, just as the US coal industry turned its attention to Asian markets.
Reactions to rejuvenation of the GPT proposal were initially positive. The president of the Whatcom County Central Labor Council declared organized labor’s support, citing 3,500 construction and up to 430 permanent jobs. The local member of Congress enthused, “Exports are a surefire way to get our economy moving and grow good jobs in the community.”6
Opposition soon emerged, however. New groups that formed to fight the coal port, including Coal-Free Bellingham, Protect Whatcom, and Save the South Fork, joined forces with local environmental group RE Sources and state and national environmental organizations, including Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, which was engaged in a successful national campaign against coal-fired power plants (Cheon and Urpelainen 2018). As communities mobilized against coal terminal proposals along the Pacific coast, 120 environmental, community, and faith groups formed the Power Past Coal Alliance, a network through which campaigns against individual projects coordinated strategy and fund-raising.
The GPT opponents’ campaign focused heavily on increased rail traffic. The rail line parallels the waterfront in Bellingham and other Washington State communities, with the implication that coal trains would delay traffic and restrict shore access. Lawn signs opposing coal trains sprouted throughout Whatcom Country. Interestingly, as noted in Figure 2, coal trains were already traveling along the rail line to Westshore Terminals, an established coal port just north of the Canadian border, which in 2010 was handling 8 million metric tons per year of US coal.7 However, 48 million metric tons of additional exports promised eighteen additional trains per day, each up to one and a half miles in length.
Coal dust also was prominent in the opposition campaign. Due to its flammability, coal is transported in uncovered rail cars, which thus invariably release coal dust in transit. Port opponents regularly cited a 2011 fact sheet prepared by the rail operator BNSF that estimated loss of “from 500 lbs to a ton of coal” in transit from a single loaded coal car.8 A group of two hundred local physicians, Whatcom Docs, produced a review of negative health impacts of coal dust, while a professor at nearby Western Washington University measured elevated levels of particulates along the rail line (Jaffe et al. 2015).
The coal industry countered that losses were reduced by spraying a topping agent on each rail car.9 Residents responded by posting videos online of coal trains passing their communities in a cloud of black dust. In July 2013, the Sierra Club and state environmental groups sued BNSF, arguing that coal dust released by uncovered rail cars constituted an unpermitted discharge to Washington State waters under the federal Clean Water Act. The case was resolved via a 2017 consent decree in which BNSF agreed to undertake a study of rail car coverings, remove coal along the right of way, and contribute US$ 1 million to projects to improve water quality and habitat across Washington State.10
The mayor of Bellingham, Dan Pike, sponsored a town hall on the GPT in June 2011, which drew more than three hundred residents. Union leaders affirmed their support but were greatly outnumbered by opponents, who cited health risks from coal dust, climate change, and harm to the community’s image and property values.11 Pike withdrew his support for the project two days later.
Opposition also spread along the rail line. Coal trains travel west along the Columbia River, before turning northward through Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham. The city of Seattle estimated that increased rail traffic would delay waterfront traffic by one to three hours per day.12 Seattle and other rail line communities passed resolutions opposing the project outright or calling for a comprehensive review of all proposed Pacific coal terminals and associated rail transport. In February 2012, the Washington Environmental Council delivered a petition to the state with 40,000 signatures opposing the GPT and another coal terminal proposed in Longview.13 By the end of 2012, “more than three dozen cities, counties, and ports, close to 600 health professionals, 220 faith leaders, and more than 450 local businesses [had] either voiced concern or come out against coal export off the West coast.”14
In response, statements of support were issued by mayors of smaller communities, various state representatives, and organized labor.15 In July 2012, forty businesses, unions, and other organizations formed the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which sponsored television ads supporting the GPT. The Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce delivered its own 10,000-signature petition to the county council.
The Lummi Nation played a uniquely influential role. The 1855 Point Elliot Treaty granted the Lummi “the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations” in perpetuity. A century later, that language was given special weight by a series of court decisions that established broad geographic boundaries of the traditional Lummi fishery and a demanding standard that development must not exceed a “de minimus” impact on the Lummi fishery (Allan 2016).
Lummi opposition to the GPT was not a foregone conclusion, however. In March 2011, the Lummi accepted US$ 400,000 from the proponent to undertake an environment review of the proposed project. The tribe’s newspaper stated the Lummi’s intention not to take a position before those environmental studies were complete.16 However, soon thereafter, a county inspection found preliminary site work that exceeded the scope of the proponent’s permit.17 The location included a wetland and a former Lummi village and burial ground. While the Lummi considered whether to accept US$ 100,000 in compensation and support continued site work,18 RE Sources filed a lawsuit against the proponent for damage to wetlands. In 2013, a judge accepted a negotiated settlement in which PIT agreed to pay US$ 1.65 million in damages.19
The Lummi Nation announced its opposition to the project in September 2012, just days before hearings on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) were to begin. Hundreds of Lummi Nation members gathered on the beach at Cherry Point to burn a mock million-dollar check, in symbolic declaration that no amount of money could buy the tribe’s support.20 That month, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a congress of more than fifty tribes in seven states, passed a resolution calling for a single EIS for all proposed coal ports.21 Native tribes were not of one voice, however. The Crow and Navajo Nations, whose tribal lands are home to coal mines, signed an alternate resolution supporting coal development.22
In September 2012, the federal–state–county joint review team opened a window for public comments on the appropriate scope of the environmental review; 125,000 were received.23 Thousands more attended seven public hearings across the state. In July 2013, the state, the county, and the federal Corps announced disparate decisions with respect to scope for review. The Corps opted to focus on the project’s local impacts on air and water quality, wetlands, fish and wildlife, archeological resources at Cherry Point, and coastal waters within eight miles. The Corps rejected the US EPA’s recommendation to review impacts of both rail transport and combustion at the final destination.24 In contrast, the state and county both committed to reviewing human health impacts along the rail line. The county committed to reviewing greenhouse gas emissions from terminal, rail, and ship operations, while the state also included end-use combustion. The co-leads revised their memorandum of understanding in anticipation of separate environmental impact statements.
The broad scope of environmental review was the first of several strikes against the GPT in 2013. In August, the Lummi Nation submitted a formal letter to the Army Corps of Engineers stating “unconditional and unequivocal opposition” to the project based on “significant and unavoidable impacts” on treaty rights.25 In November, Whatcom County elected an environmentalist-supported slate of councilors poised to reject the project. The final strike was a decline in the price of coal. The rush to build Pacific coal ports had been prompted by a surge in coal prices in China, from US$ 30 per metric ton in 2003 to US$ 130 per metric ton in 2011. However, as China’s coal consumption leveled off, international coal prices declined to US$ 100 in 2013 and to US$ 70 by 2015.26
In December 2014, the state DOE released the PIT-funded study of vessel traffic commissioned by the Lummi and overseen by the DOE.27 A month later, the Lummi Nation cited the study in a 100-page submission calling on the Corps to reject the GPT because it would violate treaty fishing rights.28 Seventeen members of the US House of Representatives and sixteen US senators, primarily from coal-mining states, called on the Corps to complete the EIS before ruling on the Lummi claim.29 However, in May 2016, the Corps announced that it could not entertain federal permits because the proposed terminal would violate the treaty between the United States and the Lummi Nation.30 The Corps determined that there was no basis to continue with the EIS. The state DOE also terminated its environmental review, since state permits were contingent on federal permits. Whatcom County staff also recommended permit denial.31
Fraser Surrey Docks
Fifty kilometers north of Cherry Point, Fraser Surrey Docks (FSD) sits just inland from the coast on the Fraser River (Figure 2). In 2012, FSD proposed to build a new coal terminal, initially slated for 4 million metric tons per year, with planned expansion to 8 million. FSD would exclusively export US-mined coal transported along the same rail line expected to supply the GPT. Because a highway tunnel under the Fraser River limits the draw of passing ships, FSD proposed to load coal onto barges, which would travel up the coast to Texada Island, where a small port handling coal from a neighboring island would be expanded to transfer coal from barges to oceangoing vessels.
Like the United States, Canada is a federal country with potential for federal, provincial, and local reviews. Under Canada’s constitution, railroads, ports, marine shipping, and international trade all fall within federal jurisdiction. Also relevant were federally owned lands in Vancouver’s harbor, including the site of FSD, which is leased to the private operator. Federal authority is delegated to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (Port of Vancouver), a hybrid entity with both regulatory functions and business-like responsibilities to manage federal lands. Historically, the Port’s regulatory role has been to ensure equitable access for port users, a mandate reinforced by industry users’ nomination of a majority of the Port’s governing board. That partnership between the Port and business is further strengthened by a requirement that the Port fund its operations by leasing federal lands. Shippers and the Port thus both benefit financially from port development. The Port’s regulatory mandate was expanded by amendments in 2012 to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act the effect was to devolve responsibility for environmental assessment to a Port Authority whose primary mandate was to promote trade and business opportunities.
The province of province of British Columbia has authority to regulate air quality, which in the region of FSD was delegated to the Metro Vancouver regional government. The province also has authority to protect public health, for which it relies on regional medical health officers, and to manage provincially owned lands and resources. The latter include extensive deposits of coal in the east of the province, which are leased to mining companies. Permitting of the Texada Island facility was a provincial matter because the dock in question is not designated as a federal port.
Metro Vancouver is an amalgamation of twenty-one municipalities, including the cities of Vancouver and Surrey, where FSD is located. FSD’s coal terminal would require both sewer and air permits from Metro Vancouver. The Tsawwassen First Nation became a member of Metro after a 2009 treaty acknowledged its right to self-government over specific lands (Metro Vancouver 2020). In addition to the Tsawwassen, greater Vancouver overlaps with reserve lands and unceded, ancestral territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, which never signed treaties.
In contrast with Washington State, although BC does not burn any of its own coal, coal mining is a significant source of rural employment, government royalties, and export value. Coal has long been the leading commodity traded through Vancouver’s port. Westshore Terminals historically exported BC-mined coal, but after 2008, Westshore’s exports of US coal increased to roughly one-third of its 36 million metric ton per year capacity.
The smaller Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver exclusively ships BC coal. In 2011, it proposed to increase its capacity from 8 million to 18 million metric tons per year. A small volunteer group, Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC), and the province-wide Dogwood Initiative mobilized their supporters in opposition. The BC Maritime Employers Association responded with a campaign in support of the project. The Port received roughly 1,000 submissions, which opposed the project by a two to one margin, before approving the expansion in January 2013.32
Attention shifted to FSD, which submitted its proposal for a new coal terminal to the Port in 2012. Although Neptune’s expansion was larger than the FSD project, Neptune relied on lines already frequented by coal trains traveling to Vancouver’s busy industrial harbor, the presence of which was already reflected in local property values. In contrast, FSD proposed to bring coal trains and barges through suburban communities for the first time. As in Washington, local residents expressed concerns about coal dust, traffic disruption, and impacts on property values. Residents along the rail line formed a new organization, Communities and Coal, which, together with Dogwood, gathered 40,000 signatures in opposition to the project.33
VTACC, Dogwood, and Communities and Coal collaborated with each other and their US counterparts. However, the Canada–United States border and BC coal industry lent a distinct narrative to the BC campaign. Rather than lawn signs opposing coal trains, Communities and Coal distributed bumper stickers declaring “No US Thermal Coal Exports.” The reference to US coal highlighted the small number of Canadian jobs at stake in shipping imported coal: FSD projected just twenty-five jobs in Surrey and a comparable number on Texada Island. The reference to thermal coal drew a further distinction between the FSD project and BC’s production and export of metallurgical coal. In addition to the political rationale for the distinction, there was a scientific one: the International Energy Agency’s 2C scenario projected steady demand for metallurgical coal but plummeting consumption of thermal coal. Environmentalists sought, without success, to reassure BC unions that despite previous opposition to the Neptune expansion, they would focus henceforth on foreign coal.34
As in Washington, opponents assembled a coalition of environmentalists, suburban homeowners, white-collar unions, public health organizations, and faith groups. A media-savvy youth group, Kids for Climate Action, dressed in elf costumes to deliver Christmas stockings laden with coal to Port executives. The BC Lung Association wrote to the Port expressing opposition to the FSD terminal. As in Washington, local municipalities, including the city of Vancouver and FSD’s home city of Surrey, passed resolutions either opposing the FSD project outright or calling for a comprehensive environmental and health assessment.35 Metro Vancouver passed a resolution on behalf of all municipalities in the region opposing new coal terminals, artfully sidestepping Westshore’s and Neptune’s current operations and proposed expansions. Similarly, a 2014 resolution passed by the Union of BC Municipalities on behalf of all local governments in the province called for “a comprehensive environmental and health impact assessment for the shipment of thermal coal.”36
In contrast to the Lummi’s sustained opposition to the GPT, opinion among BC First Nations was divided. The Tsawwassen Nation, whose lands are adjacent to Westshore Terminals, declined to take a position on FSD. The Sliammon Band, which would benefit from new jobs on Texada Island, was supportive. The Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam Bands in greater Vancouver both opposed the project, as did the Sechelt Band, located adjacent to the coastal barge route.37
The coal industry was taken by surprise by opposition after decades of coal shipments through Vancouver’s port. In response, the industry formed the Coal Alliance, comprising BC mining companies, coal terminals, railway operators, and coal unions. The Alliance hired a public relations firm, which mounted a campaign stressing the coal industry’s contributions of BC jobs and tax revenues.38 FSD also received statements of support from the BC Business Council, the Coal Association of Canada, and the Teamsters, Longshoremen, and United Steelworkers unions.39 Although the Nurses’ and BC Government Employees’ unions opposed the project, the Steelworkers, representing BC coal miners, were the single largest political donor in the province. While the Steelworkers directed their donations to the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP), mining giant Teck Resources was a close second, directing its money to the right-of-center Liberals.40
Collaboration between the coal industry and the Port of Vancouver was evident time and again. Before the Port even began review of the project, one of its senior executives provided FSD with a “comfort letter” offering the Port’s “support in principle” for the “exciting and important project” and reassurance that the Port’s “intent throughout the review process is to ensure your development proposal has the best chance of success.”41 Port staff congratulated Coal Alliance lobbyists on positive media and shared intelligence on environmentalists’, including Kids for Climate Action’s, plans.42 Media statements by Port executives echoed those of the Coal Alliance, stressing the economic contributions of coal to the BC economy.43
As coal exports became controversial, however, the Port became more circumspect, asking the Coal Association of Canada not to disclose its co-sponsorship of the Association’s annual conference.44 The Port hired a public relations firm, which produced an ad campaign featuring scenic images of snow-capped mountains and heartwarming stories of a family-owned cheese shop and immigrants cooking traditional dishes thanks to spices delivered to Vancouver’s port, with nary an image or mention of the port’s number one commodity: coal.45
As opposition grew, the Port directed FSD to host open houses, a far cry from formal hearings administered by US regulators just to determine the scope of review. Under continued pressure for a more thorough assessment, in September 2013, the Port directed FSD to commission an environmental review, which concluded that the project presented no significant adverse environmental impacts (SNC-Lavalin 2013). The scope was limited to FSD’s site and the ten-kilometer stretch of the Fraser River that coal barges would travel. Rail and marine transport were not considered, although both clearly fall within federal jurisdiction, nor were impacts of coal combustion in destination countries.
In theory, the province could have asserted its authority with respect to public health, not least when its own medical health officers for the two provincial health regions traversed by the rail line were highly critical of the FSD review and called for a full health assessment.46 Not only did the Liberal government fail to do so but the opposition NDP was consistently silent on FSD. In April 2014, the BC Ministry of Mines quietly approved the Texada trans-shipment facility through amendment to a permit for a former gravel quarry.47 VTACC challenged the approval, but a court ruled that VTACC’s mission to fight climate change did not qualify the organization for standing to dispute the permit for a coal port.48
Following the 2013 assessment, the Port faced continued calls for a human health assessment. It directed FSD to commission a health review. When that review also concluded that there would be no significant impacts,49 the medical health officer for Surrey was critical that it neglected potential health impacts along the rail line. The Port rejected calls for a broader assessment and approved the project in August 2014. A year later, the Port approved a permit revision to allow coal to be loaded directly onto oceangoing vessels, bypassing Texada Island.
The Musqueam Indian Band petitioned for judicial review, arguing that the project infringed on the Band’s right to fish on the Fraser River. As it happened, the landmark Supreme Court decision concerning Canada’s 1982 constitutional amendment recognized Musqueam’s right to fish for salmon on the Fraser.50 The Musqueam and FSD entered into extrajudicial negotiations, which yielded a confidential settlement and withdrawal of Musqueam’s case in October 2016. The contrast between the Musqueam settlement and the Lummi’s persistent opposition to the GPT prompts a question: did the Musqueam settle because they were in a weaker legal position than the Lummi? In contrast to the Lummi’s effective veto of any project that exceeded “de minimus” impacts on its fishery, the Supreme Court decision left open the possibility that the Crown can justify infringement of an Aboriginal right to fish, though only after deep consultation and with a valid public purpose. Documents from the court case reveal that at most a 1.5 percent increase in vessel traffic was expected for barges, and less than 0.2 percent for FSD’s preferred approach of oceangoing vessels.51 While we cannot know how the court would have ruled, the combination of modest impact and a more flexible judicial standard would have created greater uncertainty for the Musqueam, which is consistent with the Musqueam Band’s decision to settle.
In a separate case, VTACC, Communities and Coal, and two local residents challenged the Port’s decision arguing flawed administrative procedures and “apprehension of bias.” The cities of Surrey and New Westminster (across the river from FSD) intervened in support of the challenge. The Federal Court ruled in favor of the Port in January 2018. An appeal hearing was held in November 2018. However, before the appellate court could render judgment, the Port informed FSD in January 2019 that it was withdrawing the project’s permit for failure to satisfy a condition to make “substantial progress.”
Why did the Port quite suddenly reverse its long-standing support for the project? Documents obtained through Access to Information reveal that in late 2018, FSD did not have a single customer under contract.52 Still, FSD fought to keep the project alive and appealed to the Port for more time. Internal Port correspondence offers no indication that the decision was related to the ongoing court case. Indeed, it was the court, not the Port, that initiated proceedings to declare the case moot, ultimately terminating the appeal. Rather, internal correspondence and the Port’s letter informing FSD of withdrawal of its permit reveal that the issue was a rail line conflict between the coal facility and a proposed potash terminal on an adjacent site, which could not proceed until FSD’s construction was either completed or abandoned.53
The FSD and GPT projects were similar in many respects. Both proposed transport of coal from US mines along the same rail line, prompted by the same export opportunity. Both cases demonstrate that a shifting balance of costs and benefits along the fossil fuel supply chain renders transport infrastructure, situated between more job-intensive extraction and consumption, particularly vulnerable. A broad opposition coalition emerged in both cases in anticipation of diverse costs. Environmentalists first raised the alarm about proposed coal terminals, though for a mix of local and global reasons. While VTACC and the Sierra Club led with climate, Dogwood and RE Sources emphasized local environmental impacts. Dogwood and Protect Whatcom also stressed local community autonomy. Indigenous opponents raised distinct concerns with respect to their sovereignty and fishing rights.
A Washington environmentalist later reflected, “It was never really about coal trains.” However, for the majority who signed petitions and attended hearings, it really was about the trains. The activist explained,
The real reasons to oppose [Gateway Pacific]—protect the herring, save the Salish Sea, not having 80 acres of 80 ft high piles of coal next to a reserve, ancestral burial grounds, wetlands … don’t generate any interest. The thing that gets people to sign a petition, when you knock on doors or cold call, as we did thousands of times, was 18 coal trains per day coming through town, blaring their horns.
Opposition to coal trains reflected characteristics shared by other transport projects. Linear railroads and pipelines have more close neighbors than point sources. Public concern was amplified also by project novelty: a dramatic expansion of rail traffic through Washington communities and coal trains traveling through Vancouver suburban communities for the first time. And, in contrast to broad ecological concerns, whether local or global, the anticipated costs were deeply personal for local residents, who feared noise, reduced property values, and health risks.
Moreover, anticipated costs outweighed potential benefits. Fossil fuel transport is not labor intensive and often crosses into communities without ties to fossil fuel extraction. In Washington, local business and union advocates could not draw on support from a local coal industry. Far removed from BC mines, metropolitan Vancouver municipalities also opposed FSD, though they crafted resolutions exempting legacy coal export terminals. However, at the provincial level, BC’s coal unions and industry exerted considerable influence on politicians on both left and right, as anticipated by Mildenberger (2020). Although the province did not openly champion FSD’s project, it quietly approved a secondary facility and declined to pursue concerns of its own public health officers. BC’s reluctance to test the limits of its jurisdiction on coal exports stands in contrast to its subsequent constitutional ambition in seeking to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would carry oil produced in another province.
How can we account for the GPT’s rejection, while FSD was initially approved? The GPT was an order of magnitude bigger, promising more trains and coal dust, but it also promised an order of magnitude more jobs. However, even the lower environmental impacts in the FSD case were sufficient to prompt opposition from local governments across BC, while the greater number of jobs promised by the GPT was insufficient to win over local residents and governments.
Although the two proposals prompted similar politics, US opponents were advantaged by a more supportive institutional context in three respects. First, the weaker environmental assessment regime in Canada meant that the permitting decision fell to a federal agency whose primary mission was to facilitate trade. The Port of Vancouver was itself a member of the Coal Association of Canada. Moreover, recent amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act meant that the Port was an inexperienced environmental regulator, yielding a process characterized by improvisation. While the Canadian authority offered the proponent private reassurances of support, and directed the proponent to host informal “town halls,” its US counterpart embraced a broader scope and followed formal procedures for public comments and hearings.
A second institutional difference concerns the potential for state and local vetoes. Despite a more decentralized federation, the Canadian review was dominated by the federal regulator, reflecting a combination of exclusive federal jurisdiction with respect to ports, trade, and railroads and the reticence of a provincial government loyal to domestic coal producers. In contrast, US state and local governments played an independent role in environmental review and permitting. Washington State’s insistence on a broad scope of review suggests an inclination to reject had the Army Corp not done so first, as the state in fact did for a second coal terminal proposal. Following the 2013 election, the county was also poised to reject the project.
In the end, however, it was opposition from the Lummi Nation that defeated the US project. An 1855 treaty given broad interpretation by twentieth-century courts effectively created a Lummi veto of virtually any impact on their traditional fishery. Although the Musqueam Indian Band also had a right to fish, that right would have been subject to a balancing of interests by the courts. That neither a more decentralized federation nor constitutionally entrenched Indigenous rights yielded the stronger vetoes one might have anticipated in the Canadian case is a reminder of the importance of case specificity, including division of powers with respect to a particular project and specific rights of particular Indigenous communities.
The contrast between the outcome of NGOs’ litigation is suggestive of a fourth institutional difference. Two cases brought by Canadian NGOs were unsuccessful, while two US cases resulted in significant financial settlements. However, neither impacted the outcome: US NGOs’ successful litigation against private firms did not impact government decisions, while Canadian NGOs failed to overturn regulatory decisions. That said, weaker traditions of both private enforcement and judicial review of rule making in Canada warrant further investigation (Hoberg 1997; Smith 2000).
If divergence in initial permitting reflected institutional factors, how can we account for the Canadian regulator’s surprising reversal of its decision? Institutions had not changed, but economic conditions had. The Canadian port remained committed to advancing business interests but withdrew support for FSD’s project when weak global prices for coal threatened a more promising business opportunity. The failure of the Canadian project, despite initial approval, underscores that delay itself can be an effective strategy for supply-side climate activists. Even a captured regulator can shift allegiance when low-carbon economic opportunities become more financially secure than fossil fuels.
Global Climate, Local Politics
It is striking that the outcome of campaigns against fossil fuels initially motivated by global warming turned on local politics. Neither Canada nor the United States was constrained by the Kyoto Protocol. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides only indirect constraints on fossil fuel exports anyway, since the vast majority of emissions will occur in another country. In any case, global treaties were not needed to defeat coal ports along the Pacific coast.
Indeed, it is striking that although the stakes were high for climate, the relevant regulatory decisions were not climate policy decisions, nor were the surrounding politics exclusively, or even primarily, about climate. Although climate activists were active in opposing coal ports, impacts on Indigenous rights, public health, and property values, rather than “2018), played the greatest role in mobilizing opposition.
To the extent that global forces did contribute to the outcome, it was the rise and fall of coal prices in Asia. Even there, the softening of demand in China well in advance of the 2015 Paris Agreement arguably was driven by local air quality concerns rather than global warming.
Hale (this issue) notes that in some contexts, local co-benefits may be sufficient to drive mitigation of global warming. While it doesn’t follow that local politics will always be amenable to climate action, Parry et al.’s (2015) finding that domestic co-benefits alone would justify an average carbon price of US$ 57.50 across the top twenty greenhouse gas–emitting nations underscores the potential to broaden coalitions between climate activists and those pursuing purely local interests, whether for environmental, health, or economic reasons.
The success of North American campaigns against proposed coal export terminals demonstrates that opposition to fossil fuel supply is particularly influential in the case of transport infrastructure, particularly in jurisdictions that do not produce fossil fuels and where institutions provide meaningful avenues for public opposition and vetoes by rights holders. Activists also leverage their impact by highlighting and building coalitions around both local and global impacts of fossil fuels.
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The author gratefully acknowledges research assistance of Li Guo, mapping support from Alistair Barrett, the generosity of interview subjects, constructive feedback from Amy Janzwood, Kevin Washbrook, Peter Hall, Thomas Princen, anonymous reviewers, and the editors and fellow authors of this issue.