When it comes to shipping coal, it looks like the Vancouver Port Authority is taking a page out of the U.S. coal lobby's books. In an effort to combat negative public opinion about coal and the proposed expansion of coal exports through Fraser Surrey Docks, the port authority has hired public relations firm Edelman Vancouver to revamp its image.
Edelman is the largest public relations firm in B.C. and the company has a history of both pushing coal exports and disregarding public opinion. Until recently, the firm represented the pro-coal organization Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, one of the largest groups in Washington state pushing for an increase in coal exports.
Edelman was fired by the Northwest Alliance after Lauri Hennessey, Edelman vice-president and spokesperson for the alliance, was recorded at an industry conference disparaging the people of the Pacific Northwest and calling the opposition “wacky” and “weird.” At the same conference, Hennessey acknowledged climate change in her address, but argued that the coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming — the source of the coal that would be shipped through Fraser Surrey Docks — wouldn’t have any adverse effects on the climate.
Edelman has now designed an ad campaign called Port Stories on behalf of Port Metro Vancouver. The ads have got it all: hardworking Canadians, poignant family moments and sweeping statements about how the port has shaped Vancouver as a city. There’s only one thing missing: any mention of coal.
Public documents also show that in April of 2012, the Port Authority hired American law firm McKenna Long & Aldrige to lobby on its behalf south of the border. The registration form, which indicates Port Metro Vancouver has been taken on as a client, says McKenna Long & Aldridge will push for “any regulations or inquiry of the U.S. Maritime Commission regarding possible cargo diversion from U.S. ports to Canadian or Mexican ports.”
Tightening regulations on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. mean coal producers south of the border are looking for the quickest way to get their product to market. With fierce opposition to proposals for new coal shipping facilities in the U.S., producers are turning north to Vancouver.
This means that, while purporting to take public opinion into account when making the final decision on the port expansion, the Vancouver port authority has powerful lobbyists working in Washington to push for the very thing many citizens are opposed to in B.C.
The port of Metro Vancouver is the largest port in Canada, trading more than $53 billion per year in goods. According to a company statement, the port would like to be “embraced as a member of the community,” but its conduct around proposals to ship U.S. coal through Vancouver has proven a thorny matter.
Laura Benson, coal campaigner with the Dogwood Initiative, says that until the conflict of interest between the port’s role as a regulator and its position as a proponent of coal export is resolved, the public is facing an uphill battle.
“If the port were truly a corporation, then it would be fair game for them to be hiring PR companies and the biggest and best lobbyists.”
But because the port is also responsible for deciding on the proposed expansion of the Fraser Surrey Docks, Benson says, the conflict is essentially written into its mandate. She says it doesn’t have to be this way.
“There are all sort of models of ports around the world run in a much more responsible way.”
In order to put a stop to dirty coal use for good, port reform needs to be on the agenda, Benson argues.
Benson also stressed the need to continue to build a cross-border movement to oppose coal exports.
“I do think that we’re looking at a desperate industry,” she said. “Their window of opportunity is closing, and if we are successful in blocking thermal coal out of our port, this could be a turning point.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons