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    Coal-export plans turn into a running battle

    A growing coalition opposes the plans for shipping coal through the Northwest to China's electrical plants, but there is a lot of strength on the supporters' side, too.

    The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

    The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Courtesy of Gateway Pacific Terminal

    Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada.

    Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada. Port Metro Vancouver

    The nation’s largest coal mining companies had hoped for quick approval of plans to export Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana to the endless power plants and factories of China. But summer settles into fall with permit applications in abeyance and growing resistance in Pacific Northwest communities, not only ones adjacent to but also some far from the ports that hope to ship the coal.

    Two export terminals filed permit applications earlier this year, only to be sent back to the drawing board by regulatory agencies. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, would export some 48 million tons of coal a year and the Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview applied for 5.7 million tons but later admitted to plans for seeking 60 million tons once a permit was granted. Neither has given a timeline for a new application. The ports, if allowed, would be the only coal export facilities on the U.S. Pacific Coast, and larger than any Canadian port.

    This week a growing coalition is regrouping to widen the scope of opposition in communities all along the roughly 1,100-mile line from the coal fields to the Northwest Washington. The Power Past Coal coalition will directly connect with Pacific Northwest communities that have been targeted by the coal industry as export sites or fear the health and economic impact of new railroad traffic.

    The coalition will be able to combine small local groups that can provide volunteers with the substantial finances and lawyering expertise of national environmental organizations. Earlier this year the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign received a four-year $50 million grant from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's charitable foundation; none of the grant will go directly to Power Past Coal, leaders say, but efforts are certain to overlap. Some of the new group are also involved in the NW Energy Coalition, formed in the 1980s.

    Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions said the non-profit organization, based in Seattle but with offices around the Northwest, would handle much of the organizational work but rely on local partners in their communities; the coalition, he noted, would avoid duplication and provide unity in fundraising. “We have groups that are concerned about health and environmental issues, and also about transportation and the impacts on the ultimate consumers.” Partners will be listed on a remodeled Web site for Power Past Coal, which is expected to be open Thursday.

    “Coal companies stand to make huge profits," the coalition said in announcing its partners. "China would get the energy. The Northwest would pay the price. We can do better than coal export to build our states’ economies. Washington and Oregon have long and proud histories of economic innovation, and already support thousands of high-tech and clean energy jobs. We should focus on building those industries — not supporting old industries like dirty coal.”

    As of Tuesday (Sept. 20), Power Past Coal boasted some 50 organizations, ranging from small community activist groups, such as Safeguard the South Fork in eastern Whatcom County, to larger groups, such as the Washington Environmental Council and the Sierra Club. Much of the campaign leadership is from Climate Solutions’ headquarters.

    Power Past Coal brings together anti-coal forces with community groups primarily concerned about rail traffic. BNSF trains run through most of Western Washington’s major cities, and from Spokane and Tri-Cities along the scenic Columbia River Gorge. In Spokane, a major rail hub, Mayor Mary Verner has joined several Western Washington mayors in expressing concern. A 2010 study of the large Spokane railyard pointed to a higher cancer risk for residents living near the rail switching facility; the risk is primarily linked to diesel fumes. In Bellingham, a coalition of some 160 physicians has cited that risk in a statement opposing the Cherry Point facility.

    In addition to objections to diesel fumes and coal dust from open-hopper coal cars, opponents cite the disturbance of train horns, particular during nighttime hours, as the mile-and-a-half unit trains pass through residential corridors. Currently, BNSF is running six daily coal unit trains through Western Washington, to and from Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. The Cherry Point terminal would add 18 more trains, bringing the coal train count to 24 daily, in addition to about 10 Amtrak and regular freight trains, some of which are as lengthy as the coal trains. In the busiest corridors in the Seattle-Everett-Tacoma area, the rail traffic is even higher due to Sound Transit and additional freight and Amtrak trains.

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    Posted Wed, Sep 21, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Exporting North American coal to China to burn is insane (and almost as insane to burn it here). http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/ It's a cliche to say this project "must not be built" because business as usual says it will be built. Business as usual is insane.


    Posted Thu, Sep 22, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is an excellent overview.

    In the long run, it appears that the people fighting these coal exports are powerless to decide how China delivers energy. It doesn't appear that the Sierra Club has much clout there.

    Coal will continue to be burned in China well into the future in massive amounts.

    Floyd just described how the Pacific Northwest is built to deliver it.

    If not coal from Montana, China will get it someplace else.

    Which raises the question of whether pouring time and money into a massive campaign to stop these shipments might be better directed toward something more effective - something that can ultimately deliver real greenhouse gas reductions to the globe.

    The Obama administration will not get in the way of these exports. Obama's man in China is probably busy helping to pave the way for Montana day there.


    Posted Thu, Sep 22, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

    Jan, I think you hit the nail on the head. Enviros need a better game plan moving forward with a little more thought given to what success looks like and how to get there. The Monte Cristo mine clean up mentioned in Peter Jackson's post is another perfect example. It might give the movement more credibility with the broader community to not cry wolf on every single issue.

    Posted Thu, Sep 22, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's OK to export logs and CO2 emitting airplanes but this coal comes from elsewhere and consequently must adhere to a more stringent set of rules.


    Posted Thu, Sep 22, 1:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Jan said: "If not coal from Montana, China will get it someplace else." This statement ignores the affect of increasing the cost of coal in China. If you reduce their sources, you increase the uncertainty and cost. The result is to increase the pressure to find alternatives, which become more viable as the cost of energy increases. Daniel Jack Chasan recently posted an excellent analysis of this very question with respect to this very project: http://crosscut.com/blog/crosscut/20444/Can-little-old-Washington-influence-the-price-of-coal-to-China-/

    In light of that cogent economic analysis and of the global environmental consequences of continuing to burn coal, the most rational decision would be to leave Powder River Basin coal where it was created, under ground in Wyoming. Whether or not the Sierra Club or local communities can stop the project is a political question, not economic or environmental.

    Concerning the environmental consequences: pinmlt, you allege that enviros are "crying wolf on every single issue." Global warming is the biggest crisis facing humanity, and we darn well should be screaming "wolf". If you want to see where business as usual (i.e., just keep burning that carbon) takes us, see the latest National Geographic which simplifies it so even deniers can understand: "If we continue down this road, there really is no uncertainty. We're headed for the Eocene. And we know what that's like." Hot as hell.


    Posted Thu, Sep 22, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Even if it were sane to sell China coal, in the long run it's stupid for the USA to export it's stored energy. We are going to need it ourselves clean or not. Yes it should remain in the ground but with it there, it's still buried energy held in reserve for an emergency.

    China can buy coal from some other fool nation. Let them. They are trying like the devil to move away from it to Solar and wind and so should we.


    Posted Thu, Oct 6, 6:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    To all of the goofballs that think they know something here is a history lesson. The powder river basin has still a 1000 year coal reserve of coal. We as Americans could use the jobs, that exporting the coal will bring. Think about this if we are not permitted to sell coal to China, it will be acquired from other countries like Australia(who at this time is putting the rail infrastructure for this purpose) and India. The other thing is for the goofball environmentalist, Stop complaining and start working on a solution for burning coal cleaner. You claim to have the brains, Start using them instead of sitting on them! I am amazed at you all, you are from the mutant community that possess two brain cells. Why don't you use your passion and brains to burn things cleaner. We tried the natural gas thing here in the Bay area and it exploded in San Bruno California. This is America you idiots, and not the peoples republic that resides the apathy of your own tiny narrowed minded brains.

    Posted Mon, Oct 10, 5:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Regarding capacity of rail lines to handle enormous increase in trains trips per day read report by Sightline.org. Such increases appear to be incredibly disruptive of other frieght traffic, if not impossible.


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