Federal report rekindles terminal expansion debate


Opponents of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s (VFPA) plans to build a $2.8 billion container cargo terminal expansion at Roberts Bank said they are optimistic that Ottawa will take a more critical look at the project following last week’s release of a review panel report on its environmental impact.

The report, filed by a three-member panel appointed by the federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change after a year-long public commenting process in 2019, concluded that Terminal 2 posed no major technical challenges and is “consistent” with Canada’s ambitions to be more competitive in global trade markets and drive local economies.

But the findings also noted that the project would have significant residual and cumulative negative effects on human health, local wildlife, First Nation’s access to cultural sites, commercial crab fisheries and other aspects of life in the Delta/Tsawwassen area. The report added that Terminal 2 would result in the area’s loss of 177 hectares of habitat while compensating it with only 29 hectares under the VFPA’s mitigation plan.

Roger Emsley of the Against Port Expansion group said that while federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson could now technically approve Terminal 2, the environmental concerns documented in the report mean it’s more likely that the minister will submit the Terminal 2 application to the federal cabinet for consideration.

Emsley, who was prominent in presenting to the panel during the public hearing process last year, said the report panel was “wishy-washy” in its wording about those concerns, “but [it] did lay bare some of the key environmental issues. So I’m optimistic, and it is clear to me that the minister has no choice but to move this to cabinet.”

Among the key items that Emsley believes will change Ottawa’s mind on Terminal 2 is the availability of cargo-handling capacity at Prince Rupert’s Fairview Terminal. And although the panel did not delve deeply into the issue of alternative ports – citing environmental impact at Roberts Bank as its area of jurisdiction – Emsley said the issue should resurface if cabinet compares the cost efficiency of the two locations.

Emsley also noted that port traffic through Metro Vancouver dropped in 2020’s first two months but not through Prince Rupert as U.S. cargo moved elsewhere.

The VFPA said as of April 1 it is still reviewing the panel’s findings, but added that officials “are confident in the information we have provided throughout the environmental assessment, and in our conclusion that the project and marine shipping associated with the project will not have any adverse effects to the environment that cannot be mitigated.”

In the report, the panel concluded that the VFPA was correct in assessing Terminal 2 as the most appropriate way to increase container port capacity on B.C.’s West Coast, a finding that irked another main opponent of the project.

Global Container Terminals (GCT) Canada, which operates Roberts Bank’s GCT Deltaport container terminal, has been extremely vocal about its Terminal 2 alternative.

It maintains that its proposed $1 billion Berth 4 expansion at Deltaport is a cheaper, more environmentally sound alternative way to expand container cargo handling capacity at Roberts Bank.

After reviewing the panel findings, GCT said in a statement that it is seeking additional comments from the panel and the federal government over its concerns about the report, including Terminal 2’s estimated $2.8 billion cost, disagreements on the need for such a large expansion and GCT’s track record as a container port operator.

“The majority of stakeholders understand and agree that British Columbia will need container port capacity in the future that appropriately responds to the needs of exporters, consumers and the ocean shipping industry,” the statement said. “It is important that this capacity is incremental and right-sized for the community and the market.”

GCT stated that the risk of excess capacity cannot be ignored, adding that the VFPA’s decision to defer Deltaport Berth 4 in favour of the larger Terminal 2 – to be operated by another company – simultaneously turns the port authority into GCT’s landlord and competitor, creating an “incompatible” conflict of interest.

“Although there will, in the future, be a need for more container handling capacity in Canada, there is no urgent crisis for capacity,” GCT said in its statement, noting its projections show current capacity and capacity under construction will be enough into the 2030s. “There is time to consider better alternatives. GCT’s proposed expansion project … is incremental, privately funded and environmentally conscious.”

The VFPA has stated that it anticipates Canada’s West Coast will “run out of container terminal capacity in just a few short years.”

It also wants the new Roberts Bank terminal to be managed by another company to ensure there is adequate container cargo handling competition at the Port of Vancouver.

Currently, two large companies operate all the port’s container terminals.

Emsley said that while the GCT option presents less environmental impact on the Tsawwassen region, his group’s preference is for further port development to be elsewhere such as Prince Rupert. 

This article by Chuck Chiang originally appeared in Business in Vancouver on April 3, 2020.

Watch for more facts why Roberts Bank Terminal 2 is not the best or only option for Canada