What are the long term plans for public lands at Fraser Surrey Docks?

The Port Authority knows, and it should tell us.

Available information leads us to question both the wisdom of major expansion in coal export capacity in Metro Vancouver and the long term plans for the public lands leased to Fraser Surrey Docks.

Our public regulator, the Port Authority, should provide us with answers to these questions now as we debate the proposal to export coal from the Fraser River.

These questions are especially relevant given plans to remove the Massey Tunnel. It's hard to determine who stands to benefit most from that proposal - and who should pay for it - without knowing what is planned for up-river port lands, including Fraser Surrey Docks, post-tunnel removal.

Coal export capacity: does our region need another coal port?

In 2012 the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority recorded 32.7 M tonnes of coal exports. Our region currently has coal export capacity totalling 51.5 million tonnes/year (33 million tonnes/year existing capacity at Westshore, and 18.5 million tonnes/year existing and approved capacity at Neptune). Virtually the entire existing and approved capacity at Neptune Terminals is unnecessary at current export levels.

Metallurgical coal demand is soft, and the bubble in thermal coal prices has collapsed, making it near impossible to price US thermal coal to Asian markets through our ports.

Is the proposed additional 4 to 8 Mt/yr coal export capacity at Fraser Surrey Docks even needed? Will it come to represent yet more stranded infrastructure on public lands on the Fraser River waterfront?

We are left to conclude that either the Port Authority is making a strategic mistake in allowing this private infrastructure investment on public lands, or else the proposed coal export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks is only temporary in nature.

If the coal export capacity is only temporary, what comes next?

Long term plans for port lands leased to Fraser Surrey Docks: what's really going on?

Clearly, tearing out the Massey Tunnel means big changes for Fraser Surrey Docks. Here are three other factors to consider:

1.The $15M coal port is only "temporary."

Port Authority Board briefing notes (obtained by VTACC through ATIP) repeatedly describe the FS Docks coal terminal project as a "medium term" plan. For example: "Fraser Surrey Docks are moving through project permitting for a medium term export coal handling barge transshipment project. This is the first important step [redacted]." (pg. 13 in link -- redaction justified by the Port Authority because of a financial interest in the decision)

Several documents generated by consultants for Fraser Surrey Docks describe the coal port plan as "temporary" in nature, including

  1. Preliminary Environmental Management Plan for Construction and Operations Triton, September 2012 (cover)
  2. Coal Transfer Facility Fire Safety Plan RKMS September 2012 (pg 4 - Introduction)
  3. Overview discussion of the potential toxicity of unburned coal Triton January 2013 (Introduction)

2.The Port is investing in Fraser Surrey Docks expansion.

In its most recent Financial Report (pg 16) the Port Authority indicates that it has set aside $5M from 2013 through 2017 to "plan and assist bulk capacity expansion" at Fraser Surrey Docks. If this is in support of the current coal export project it is presumptive, given that the proposed coal terminal is still under review. It is also puzzling why the Port Authority would commit $5 million in public money -- a third as much as the total cost of the proposed coal terminal -- for a medium term, temporary project.

The Port Authority has also referred to the coal port at Fraser Surrey Docks as a "test case" for the handling of bulk products on the Fraser River.

3.Fraser Surrey Docks lobbyists - a lot of time in Ottawa.

In the past year, Fraser Surrey Docks' lobbying consultant, National Public Relations, has registered 17 visits with federal government departments, including the Office of the Privy Council and the PMO. By comparison, neither Westshore Terminals nor Neptune Terminals feature in the federal lobbying registry over that time frame-- this despite the fact that Neptune Terminals applied to the Port Authority to increase it's coal export capacity (a $63.5 million project) at the same time that Fraser Surrey Docks applied to build its new coal export facility, and Westshore Terminals has just received Port approval for a $230 million upgrade and expansion.

Taken together, all of these points suggest something significant is already in the works for Fraser Surrey Docks over the long term -- something more than a $15M coal port.

Speculation over long term plans for Port lands at Fraser Surrey Docks post Massey Tunnel replacement has focused on a larger coal port accessible directly to ocean going vessels, eliminating the need to barge coal to Texada Island. That speculation may be unwarranted, given the current coal export capacity in Metro Vancouver and industry expectations that a major new coal terminal in Washington or Oregon will eliminate the need to export US thermal coal from Surrey.

However, if the Port and FS Docks envision larger vessels carrying coal -- or oil (a new Kinder Morgan terminal? BNSF delivery of Bakken oil by rail?) -- down the Fraser River once the Massey Tunnel is removed, the public deserves to know earlier rather than later.

Otherwise, it is difficult to have confidence that the Port Authority is consulting the public in good faith over long term development plans for our region.