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Port opens door for China to get U.S. coal

As Northwest concerns build about global and local environmental issues in the Northwest, a small Oregon port gives its approval to exporting coal to burn in Chinese power plants.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon. Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

American coal bound for the greedy furnaces of Asia gained a foothold on the Columbia River but faced citizen anger on Northern Puget Sound on Thursday as 2012 shapes up as the year of coal wars in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Port of St. Helens, down river from Portland, approved lease options for two giant coal companies to use Port Westward facilities to transfer Wyoming coal to huge ships bound for China and other Asian ports. Combined, they would load some 23 million tons a year, but they face a host of permitting and citizen roadblocks before any coal is shipped.

Activists in Bellingham launched an initiative petition on Thursday (Jan. 26) that they believe has the power to stop any coal shipments through the city. Peabody Coal wants to ship up to 48 million tons a year through the city en route to a new export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham.

Opposition in both St. Helens and Bellingham, as in many cities along the routes, targets the mile-and-a-half-long coal trains that would carry the coal from Wyoming to the terminals. At the St. Helens hearing, a Rainier city councilman and several others objected to the added train traffic along a little-used spur railroad running from Portland to Clatskanie; the tracks bisect the small city of Rainier.

In Bellingham, Coal-Free Bellingham is sponsoring an initiative that, supporters contend, would allow city voters to override federal statutes that have traditionally given railroads free rein to carry legal cargoes from state to state.

Initiative sponsors have until July to collect about 4,800 signatures and force a November ballot. Some 200 enthusiastic supporters showed up to launch the drive. Last June, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition at an event headed by environmental leader Bill McKibben, so the campaign has a core constituency for its launch. McKibben has sent a letter backing the initiative.

The most popular applause line of the night in Bellingham: “We have the right to decide — it is our right to decide what happens here,” from retired corporate lawyer Stoney Bird, who helped draft the initiative. The initiative, similar to ordinances proposed in other communities, presents a “Bill of Rights” to protect “residents, natural communities and ecosystems of the city” and seeks to nullify contrary federal laws and regulations.

In the case of Bellingham, that would mean an inevitable clash with several large corporations — Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Goldman Sachs, Peabody Coal and SSA Marine — who are behind the proposed export terminal. Wording of the ordinance (which is to be posted Friday morning) essentially nullifies elements of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, placing its faith instead with the Declaration of Independence and its individual rights.

If adopted in November, the initiative could cause severe conflicts for the city itself, which could be forced to defend it against deep-pockets corporations. Bird said an organization that has worked on similar efforts — the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — would help the city with its legal burden, but the matter of liability may be expected to surface in the campaign.

The initiative lists 22 different dangers or threats from the movement of coal through the city; speakers urged union members and others who have been supporting the terminal to consider the long-range impact of the export terminal and its associated trains. “Try and balance the needs of right now with the long-term effects of this project,” urged John Morgan, a retired construction carpenter.

Although smaller than the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point outside Bellingham, the St. Helens applications would be significant. Applicants claim the exports would add 100 jobs, and a longshore-union spokesman endorsed the project Wednesday night (Jan. 25).

Columbia Riverkeeper executive director Brett VanderHeuvel, who has attempted without success to obtain records of the Port of St. Helens’ negotiations, charged, “This was a deal behind closed door.” In a statement Thursday, he added, “Apparently, the Port already had lease agreements drafted prior to informing the public about the possibility of coal projects.” Port interest in coal has been covered in news accounts, but specifics of the proposals were not aired before the Wednesday night meeting.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 27, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

There are viable alternatives to shipping coal through Northwest ports.

Looking at a map, it appears that shipping by train via new ports in Southern California or Mexico would only be a couple of hundred miles longer ... the transportation cost difference would be insignificant.

And Canadian ports already accept a good amount of the coal traffic and are already being expanded.

And with the upcoming opening of the enlarged Panama Canal, it may be economic to ship the coal via Gulf Coast ports.

So the question becomes:
Since coal will be shipped one way or another,
and since the world will continue to consume coal regardless of whether it is shipped through the Northwest,
is the Northwest willing to derive the economic and job benefits by having coal ports here?

In any case, when the enlarged Panama Canal opens next year much of the container traffic that passes the Pacific ports, including Northwest ports, will be rerouted through Gulf and Atlantic ports. The NW at that time may be very hungry for jobs to replace those that will be lost when that port and rail traffic declines.

elbegewa

Posted Fri, Jan 27, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

If you believe in capital "E" economics, you probably have already figured out the flaw in the "If we don't do it, somebody else will" argument. Besides the obvious moral bankruptcy, this defies any technical or common sense understanding of economics.

Coal will be shipped out of the northwest only if its the most economic way to move the dirty polluting crap. In other words, only if coal shipped through the northwest is cheaper than all other sources. If it not shipped via the cheapest way possible, it may be shipped by a more expensive means. Assuming it is, the result is that it will increase in cost to the end user and be more expensive. If something is more expensive, less of it is used. As price increases, alternatives such as conservation, efficiency, and alternative energy sources become more competitive. So, unless you reject this basic tenet of Economics 101, preventing the northwest from being a coal traffiking center will, in fact, reduce worldwide consumption, which means faster transition away from coal and less pollution. Sounds like a win-win to me. Everyone wins except for the fossil fuel pushers and cartels.

PS: There is now more employment provided in the US by solar and wind energy than by coal energy.

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Jan 27, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

"... Coal-Free Bellingham is sponsoring an initiative that, supporters contend, would allow city voters to override federal statutes that have traditionally given railroads free rein to carry legal cargoes from state to state."

Really? How can the city trump federal regulations that govern interstate commerce.

If your going to report it, how 'bout a modicum of analysis?

Posted Fri, Jan 27, 5:03 p.m. Inappropriate

This article captures this issue as well as any I've seen. Of course, it requires basic knowledge of how this proposal occurred and the questionable path its advocates have chosen to take.
Simplistic, it isn't, so get used to it being discussed in terms other than ideological sound bytes.

I've written this piece to capture a few thoughts too long for commenting here: http://bellinghamstertalk.blogspot.com/2012/01/coal-climate.html

jwatts

Posted Sat, Jan 28, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The coal trains will have an negative economic impact and environmental impact, so they should pay economic impact fees. This way, by the free market, they would choose the most economic and logical route to conduct their business. And, every party who was economically harmed would be made whole.

They should pay WSDOT and the cities for all the traffic impact, and they should pay fisheries for their increased impact on the shoreline.

Posted Wed, Feb 1, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

elbegewa: "Since coal will be shipped one way or another, and since the world will continue to consume coal regardless of whether it is shipped through the Northwest, is the Northwest willing to derive the economic and job benefits by having coal ports here?"

That's a rather presumptuous assumption. The most rational decision from the perspective of the long-term health of the biosphere is not to ship the coal anywhere--leave it in the ground. We need to make the cost of coal as high as possible. If not through a carbon tax, than through opposition to projects that facilitate burning it. The more coal costs, the more "economical" alternatives will become that don't inevitably lead to global warming hell.

The foregoing conclusion was discussed at some length in earlier articles and comments, primarily by Chasan.

louploup

Posted Wed, Feb 1, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Spokane's 2011 Proposition 1 is of particular interest to me; it's my home town. I am surprised at the strength of the sentiment "against downtown and corporate leaders." There is hope!

An excellent series of articles on that subject (fights over control of cities) is at http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/local/

louploup

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