Washington may be on the verge of a classic environmental and political battle, due to China's insatiable demand for coal. The state's deep-water ports stand between the Asian giant and the massive Powder River strip mines of Montana and Wyoming.
Add to the oversize characters in the drama the world's largest stevedoring company, the region's dominant railroad, and one of the world's richest investors.
Against this formidable lineup will be organized opposition from the region's major environmental organizations and from community activists protective of the livability of the region and their neighborhoods in particular.
Economically, the looming match-up is overwhelmingly weighted to the big corporations involved, including Seattle-based Carrix Inc., the international giant that owns SSA Marine, the largest stevedoring company in the world. Politically, major players are keeping their heads down, respectful of the economic clout involved but also aware of the political power of Washington Greens.
Gov. Christine Gregoire's Department of Ecology, however, intervened on behalf of environmentalists attempting to stop Cowlitz County from approving a coal port at Longview, on the site of a former aluminum plant. Environmentalists are also watching closely as Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark goes about assessing plans to build a big shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, primarily to allow Burlington Northern Santa Fe to haul coal from Powder River. Sensitive aquatic sites are part of the process at Cherry Point; the Columbia River's fish and wildlife are keys to the Longview process.
Gregoire, after a hastily-arranged meeting Wednesday with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, took no sides but worried environmentalists when she told King5 News, "I have no personal objection whatsoever to us having coal come through our ports and exported somewhere around the world."_Gregoire said that for the present, she just wants to be sure regulatory rules are followed, and she would take no position on the Longview site.
In October, Gregoire's Commerce director, Rogers Weed, said the governor wants to "move forward" a new shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, citing an opportunity to ship more Washington grain to Asia. Grain would benefit from any new shipping terminal in the state, but it is increasingly apparent that the real target is coal, primarily for Chinese power plants.
Despite the inevitable legal battles, the corporate power of coal port advocates is daunting. Although all the players have national and international reach, SSA, the company that would build and operate the Cherry Point facility, has its roots in Bellingham. In 1949, Fred R. Smith of Bellingham founded Bellingham Stevedoring, which later became Seattle Stevedoring Company and then, in 1990, Stevedoring Services of America.
SSA began efforts to develop the Cherry Point loading facility. SSA and two other affiliates make up Carrix, the world's largest marine and rail terminal operator. Smith's grandson, Jon Hemingway, is CEO of SSA, headquartered in Seattle (as is Carrix).
The Longview terminal would be operated by a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, a giant conglomerate based in Australia. The BNSF rail line is owned by Warren Buffett's Hathaway Inc., and the financial giant Goldman Sachs is playing a large role as an equity investor in Carrix. The coal is harvested by some the world's major corporations and, of course, China owns a large portion of the U.S. debt.
The market for American coal had been threatened by the closure of domestic coal plants, under fire for their carbon emissions, but the emergence of powers such as China and India has revived the coal market. Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times notes that China now burns half of the 6 billion tons of coal used globally each year and has become a major importer of coal. "As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more." While American laws strictly limit burning of coal, they are less strict regarding the mining, transportation, and shipping of coal.
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