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Christy Clark calls on Ottawa to ban coal exports after softwood lumber duties

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark speaks during a campaign stop at Catalyst Paper's distribution centre in Surrey, B.C., on April 26, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is urging Ottawa to ban thermal coal exports from her province's ports, opening a new front in Canada's burgeoning trade war with the United States.

Ms. Clark's request, conveyed in a letter Wednesday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes while B.C. voters are less than two weeks from the polls and targets a coal sector U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to assist.

Ms. Clark, speaking at a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., told reporters the United States has morphed into a "hostile" trading partner. The Trump administration has taken aim at Canadian lumber and dairy, and is considering a withdrawal from the North American free-trade agreement.

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"We had an obligation to be good trading partners with our trading partners in the United States. They are no longer good trading partners to Canada, so that means that we're free to make sure that we ban filthy thermal coal from B.C. ports. And I'm hoping that the federal government will support us in doing that," Ms. Clark said.

Ms. Clark – who had one day earlier urged calm amid the softwood lumber dispute and said "cooler heads need to prevail" – said she had long considered the ban and felt requesting it was the right thing to do given thermal coal's environmental effects.

She said she had not wanted to negatively affect softwood-lumber negotiations, but the United States this week made the decision to impose tariffs. Mr. Trump said Canada had been "taking advantage" of the Americans.

"Now that they've slapped a duty on Canada and they're calling us names, we're free to take an action that's long overdue," Ms. Clark said.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister, when asked if Ottawa would enact the ban, said only: "We consider carefully and seriously any request from a premier."

Maxwell Cameron, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Making of NAFTA: How the Deal Was Done, said in an interview that Ms. Clark's announcement was an impressive "shot across the bow."

"This is exactly the kind of linkage politics that NAFTA is designed to avoid. But it's what [Mr.] Trump is going to get if he persists in bullying Canada and talking about opening up the NAFTA in ways that are clearly prejudicial to Canadian interests," he said.

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The Port of Vancouver said in a statement that trade policy is a matter for elected officials and its role is only to ensure items are moved safely and efficiently.

Kevin Washbrook, a spokesperson for Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, a group that has fought the shipping of coal through B.C., said Ms. Clark's announcement was unexpected.

"Since 2012, we have been pushing her government to take a stand on this issue – and as far as we could tell, she ignored us," he said in an interview.

"This letter to [Prime Minister] Trudeau, she clearly has understood everything we have been arguing … and laid it out very clearly. This is obviously a trading ploy with the U.S. – softwood lumber is a big issue – but I can't imagine how she could back down from such a strongly worded statement."

Dogwood, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement that it was pleased with the Premier's announcement but skeptical of the timing and the BC Liberals' environmental record as a whole.

John Horgan, the BC NDP leader, said in a statement that every available tool needs to be utilized for B.C. workers. If elected, he said he would travel to Washington within 30 days to stand up for British Columbians.

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Ms. Clark's letter said "a high volume" of U.S. thermal coal on its way to Asia has been shipped through B.C. for years. In 2016 alone, she said, more than six million tonnes of U.S. thermal coal was exported through the Port of Vancouver.

Ms. Clark said thermal coal is the most carbon dioxide-intensive form of conventional fossil-fuel energy production and banning its transport would be consistent with B.C.'s and Ottawa's efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

She said Washington, Oregon and California have already made commitments to eliminate the use of coal as a source of electricity and every proposed coal export facility on the U.S. West Coast over the past five years has been rejected or withdrawn.

If the federal government does not consider her request appropriate, Ms. Clark said, "British Columbia will use the tools we have at our disposal to discourage the shipping of thermal coal through British Columbia."

She did not elaborate on what those tools would be. A spokesperson later said the focus at the moment is on working with the federal government.

Video: BC NDP leader promises to address lack of family doctors (The Canadian Press)
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About the Authors
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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