Port Cities: Vancouver, British Columbia

In this piece, written for Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Port Cities class (offered at the University of Barcelona), the potentially political role of the Port of Vancouver is discussed as it relates to Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

An oil tanker makes its way through Burrard Inlet, Vancouver. Source: https://www.abbynews.com/news/oil-water-part-one-how-safe-are-oil-tankers-travelling-southern-b-c-waters/

As a heavily resource-dependent and -producing country, resource extraction is deeply embedded in the Canadian economy, and has been since early colonization. In fact, Canada is what political economist Harold Innis coined a “staple economy,” whereby the country becomes locked-in to the extraction of certain commodities (or staples), partly due to the high cost of long-term infrastructure needed to extract and produce them.[1]  This is especially true for bitumen, which is a distilled form of crude oil, and for which Canada is the world’s third-largest exporter.[2]  Bitumen is also notorious for its capital- and carbon-intensive extraction processes.[3] While development of bitumen extraction in the western province of Alberta has continued mostly unimpeded over the last several decades, the climate crisis has received substantial attention in the past few years. Indeed, across Canada, resistance to fossil fuel projects has become one of the most prominent discussions in contemporary politics.

As the closest port to the Alberta oil sands — a northern area of Alberta where the majority of the country’s bitumen is extracted — the Port of Vancouver, in Alberta’s neighbouring province of British Columbia, is responsible for approximately one fifth of Canada’s crude oil shipments by marine tanker.[4] Although 80% of crude oil is currently exported from Canada’s eastern coast,[5] the shipment of crude oil from the Port of Vancouver has recently become a more contentious issue, because of the highly politicized Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which also includes an expansion of the Port’s Westbridge Marine Terminal.[6] Marketing for the expansion boasts an increase in oil exports from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of crude oil per day out of the Port of Vancouver, with an increase in oil tankers from the terminal rising to 34 per month.[7]

Although marine shipping alone is responsible for about 3% of CO2 emissions, the bigger picture is that globally, 40% of contents shipped by sea are fossil fuels.[8] As such, the spaces that facilitate these shipments — ports — should be given greater attention in the discussion regarding the climate crisis. As Mina Akhavan notes, the role of ports in both local and global supply chains is not nearly as emphasized as it should be, given that 90% of world trade is carried through these spaces.[9] This essay seeks to answer the following question: What is the role of ports as actors in the climate crisis? Using the Port of Vancouver and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project as a case study, the essay argues that port authorities are essential actors in the decision-making process surrounding resource extraction and transportation. However, their perceived depoliticized nature means they experience less accountability than other actors involved in the fossil fuel supply chain.

The organization that oversees operations at the Port of Vancouver is the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which is a federal agency.[10] Agencies are established by the government and exist to assist the government, but they still remain somewhat autonomous.[11] The move towards establishing indirect or third-party mechanisms to conduct government business, such as agencies, has been a trend in Canada and elsewhere from the 1990s onwards, and has been argued as both an intentional and unintentional way of reducing government accountability.[12] As a federal agency, the Port Authority is regulated under the Canada Marine Act,  and is governed by a board of directors, whose primary obligation is a “fiduciary” one. Eight directors are appointed by the federal government, two are appointed by provincial governments, and one director is appointed by the 16 municipalities that border the Port zone.[13]  The Port of Vancouver’s website states that the Port Authority is mandated to “responsibly facilitate Canada’s trade through the Port of Vancouver.”[14]

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project has brought some increased attention to the Port of Vancouver in recent years. In July 2018, two months after the federal government controversially announced that they would buy the pipeline themselves, protestors from Greenpeace rappelled from a bridge to block the path of an oil tanker destined for the United States. They stayed suspended mid-air for over 36 hours before they were removed by police.[15]

Protesters hang from the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet to prevent oil tankers from passing through. Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/burrard-inlet-bridge-protest-tanker-traffic-1.4733905

Protesters of the pipeline expansion project do not only oppose the increase in oil shipments, but also the impact that an oil spill would have in the sensitive waters at the mouth of the Port of Vancouver, called Burrard Inlet, as well as the disturbance of oil tankers on endangered species in the area. So contentious is the project, the City of Vancouver and the City of Burnaby (another affected municipality) have been open dissidents, as have been local communities and Indigenous nations.[16] These conflicting stances on the pipeline expansion project confirm the argument by Nufar Avni and Na’ama Teschner, who found that public entities, such as port authorities and federal governments, do not necessarily act in the interests of local stakeholders who share the area, nor do they always involve those local stakeholders in decision-making processes.[17]

But the actual stance of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority with respect to the pipeline expansion project is not clear cut, because attention by dissidents is rarely focused on the Port Authority as an implicated actor. The Port’s website notes that they have no control over what is imported and exported through the port, instead emphasizing that their role is to “ensure goods are moving through the Port of Vancouver safely and efficiently, while also protecting the environment and considering local communities.”[18] In the aftermath of the Greenpeace protest, the Port of Vancouver did not publish any media statements with respect to what had happened.[19]

Thus, the question remains: What is the role of ports as actors in the climate crisis? This essay has demonstrated that the Port of Vancouver may be perceived as an unpolitical entity, partly because it is a government agency, and partly because of its own marketing and public relations approach. However, the Port Authority may have a greater role to play than first meets the eye. Indeed, while their mandate emphasizes their fiduciary obligation and their role of moving goods safely and efficiently, they are also obligated to protect the environment and consider local communities. These stipulations could arguably give the Port more power than it appears to have at first glance, and as such, dissidents of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and to Canada’s “staple economy” model should focus more of their attention on the Port as a potentially important — and political — actor in the climate crisis.

Protesters gather in Vancouver to protest the Trans Mountain pipeline. Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-art-gallery-trans-mountain-pipeline-protest-1.6414845

[1] Haley, Brendan.  “From Staples Trap to Carbon Trap: Canada’s Peculiar Form of Carbon Lock-In.”  Studies in Political Economy 88, no. 1 (2011): 99-102.

[2] Observatory for Economic Complexity.  “Petroleum bitumen.”  OEC.  Updated 2020.  https://oec.world/en/profile/hs92/petroleum-bitumen#exporters-importers.

[3] Haley, Brendan.  “From Staples Trap to Carbon Trap: Canada’s Peculiar Form of Carbon Lock-In.”  Studies in Political Economy 88, no. 1 (2011): 113.

[4] Canada Energy Regulatory.  “Market Snapshot: How much crude oil does Canada export by marine vessel and where does it go?”  CER.  Updated May 29, 2019.  https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/en/data-analysis/energy-markets/market-snapshots/2019/market-snapshot-how-much-crude-oil-does-canada-export-marine-vessel-where-does-it-go.html.

[5] Canada Energy Regulatory.  “Market Snapshot: How much crude oil does Canada export by marine vessel and where does it go?”  CER.  Updated May 29, 2019.  https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/en/data-analysis/energy-markets/market-snapshots/2019/market-snapshot-how-much-crude-oil-does-canada-export-marine-vessel-where-does-it-go.html.

[6] Argus Media.  “Canadian producers eye Asia-Pacific market.”  Argus Media.  August 9, 2021.  https://www.argusmedia.com/en/news/2242328-canadian-producers-eye-asiapacific-market.

[7] TransMountain.  “Expansion Project.”  TransMountain.  Accessed March 29, 2022.  https://www.transmountain.com/project-overview.

[8] Subramanian, Samanth.  “Forty percent of all shipping cargo consists of fossil fuels.”  Quartz.  January 14, 2022.  https://qz.com/2113243/forty-percent-of-all-shipping-cargo-consists-of-fossil-fuels/.

[9] Akhavan, Mina.  “Revisiting Port Cities in the Global Context” in Port Geography and Hinterland Development Dunamics: Insights from Major Port-cities of the Middle East.  Edited by Mina Akhavan.  Switzerland: Springer, 2020, 45.

[10] Port of Vancouver.  “About us.”  Port of Vancouver.  Updated 2022.  https://www.portvancouver.com/about-us/.

[11] Privy Council Office.  “Guide Book for Heads of Agencies: Operations, Structures and Responsibilities in the Federal Government.”  Government of Canada.  Updated August 1999.  https://www.canada.ca/en/privy-council/services/publications/guide-book-heads-agencies-operations-structures-responsibilities-federal-government.html.

[12] Tuohy, Carolyn Hughes.  “Agency, Contract, and Governance: Shifting Shapes of Accountability in the Health Care Arena.”  Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 28, no. 2-3 (2003): 196-197.

[13] Port of Vancouver.  “Governance and leadership.”  Port of Vancouver.  Updated 2022.  https://www.portvancouver.com/about-us/governance-leadership/.

[14] Port of Vancouver.  “Mission, vision and values.”  Port of Vancouver.  Updated 2022.  https://www.portvancouver.com/about-us/vision-mission/.

[15] Greenpeace International.  “Climbers in Vancouver blockade Trans Mountain oil tanker’s route.”  Greenpeace International.  July 3, 2018.  https://www.greenpeace.org/international/press-release/17563/climbers-in-vancouver-blockade-trans-mountain-oil-tankers-route/.

[16] Simpson, Michael.  “Fossil urbanism: Fossil fuel flows, settler colonial circulations, and the production of carbon cities.”  Urban Geography (2020): 13-14.

[17] Nufar, Avni and Na’ama Teschner.  “Urban waterfronts: Contemporary streams of planning conflicts.”  Journal of Planning Literature 34, no. 4 (2019): 410.

[18] Port of Vancouver.  “Goods movement.”  Port of Vancouver.  Updated 2022.  https://www.portvancouver.com/marine-operations/goods-movement/.

[19] Port of Vancouver.  “Media Room.”  Port of Vancouver.  Updated 2022.  https://www.portvancouver.com/news-and-media/.