“What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn,” said Henry David Thoreau. A coalition of environmental groups is sounding downright Thoreauvian about a proposal to make Longview, Washington into a major coal port.
The Cowlitz County commissioners have approved a permit application for port development at Longview that would enable an Australian company to ship Wyoming coal across the Pacific to China.
The coal would be strip-mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, hauled in mile-long trains through the Columbia River Gorge to Longview, and loaded onto bulk carriers for the trip east. Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Australia's Ambre Energy, would ship nearly 6 million tons a year through the port.
Climate Solutions, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Washington Environmental Council, and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, have appealed the permit decision to the state Shorelines Hearings Board. Their concerns go far beyond the potential impact on Longview or the Columbia River estuary (where port development would destroy habitat at the same time that the federal government, touting estuary restoration as a way to mitigate the damage done by Columbia River system dams, is spending millions to restore it).
China burns a lot of coal. In 2006, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases. The combustion puts large and growing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Although the Chinese mine a lot of coal on their own, China doesn't have enough to meet its growing demand. We do. The United States has plenty of coal, some of it strip-mined cheaply in the Powder River Basin. That coal could be shipped to China at a profit.
The dispute over the coal port is “really about the geopolitics of climate,” says K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. In the past, coal was a resource used regionally, but the market for it is becoming globalized. What is changing now is that “China's demand has exceeded its own supply,” says Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman. “The price point has changed so that it's economically viable to ship all that coal over to China.” Looking for markets in China is “a direct response to the fact that Americans are largely saying 'no' to coal-fired power plants.”
Indeed, while coal still generates roughly half the electricity used in this country, many American utilities are switching to natural gas. (Converting the Canadian-owned AltaVista coal plant in Centralia to natural gas by 2015 is on the Washington environmental community's new legislative agenda. The governor has been trying to negotiate a conversion by 2025.) As utility companies see carbon regulation or carbon taxes coming down the pike and face the cost of cleaning up their emissions to meet increasingly rigorous environmental standards, while natural gas prices drop, they're going to Plan B.
Where can coal producers find new markets? In Asia.
And where can it be loaded onto ships? Longview isn't the only place. Companies have already been looking at other sites. The Port of Tacoma has received inquiries from Ambre and others about shipping huge volumes of coal but has decided it's not interested. Tacoma has other options, but many smaller ports may try to take whatever they can get.
The Cowlitz County commissioners have said that the project will have no major environmental impact. Yet they considered only its immediate local effects, not its place in a chain of events that could accelerate climate change. Hasselman says that's a misreading of present law. The commissioners “only reached that conclusion by drawing a bubble around” this project, says Hasselman. However, “the existing legal infrastructure . . . does require some consideration of climate impacts.”
Coal shipments from Washington ports would be nothing new. Seattle and Tacoma both shipped coal in the late 19th century. For a couple of decades, coal mined in the Cascades was Seattle's leading export. Trains hauled the coal to the Seattle waterfront, where it was stored and then loaded onto steamers. Most of it was destined for San Francisco.
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