An unprecedented series of seven statewide public forums on a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham drew nearly 9,000 people to crowded hearings. Most of the big companies, public agencies and opposition groups weighed in with much less fanfare. At the agencies charged with an environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal approach a first benchmark, a summary of some 124,000 comments, Crosscut today begins a three-part analysis of those last-minute comments from major players. Today, we look at the corporations seeking the terminal.
Peabody Coal calls it a “life cycle” analysis and SSA Marine says it's a “lifespan” review, but by any name or description it’s what most concerns the big companies pushing coal-export terminals in Washington.
That’s clear in voluminous official comments from Peabody, SSA and the BNSF Railway made at the close of public scoping testimony in January. Those comments are now in the cross-hairs of three public agencies charged with determining what must be studied in a complex environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County and State Department of Ecology are collaborating as the lead agencies on the review.
There are wide-ranging implications in a so-called “life cycle” or “lifespan” environmental review. It would go beyond the usual examinations of the immediate environmental effects of a project in its own area to look potentially at regional and even national and international effects.
Opponents of the Bellingham terminal and another proposed at Longview, citing coal’s role in climate change, say global warming is an environmental impact of the terminals. Other activists oppose coal on health issues and fear a major increase in train or ship traffic. A life-cycle approach could study most if not all of these aspects.
A decision to conduct such a wide-ranging review could set a precedent for other projects across the nation. And it could make it much more complicated for the world’s largest terminal operator, the world’s largest private coal company and the nation’s second-largest railroad to win approval of their massive project. Gateway Pacific would handle 48 million tons a year of coal — Peabody and Arch Coal, the two largest potential Gateway shippers, together have options to ship 40 tons — making the terminal the largest in North America.
“Life cycle,” a term used at least a dozen times in Peabody’s 29-page scoping document, may be defined as “all stages of development.” A chunk of coal could be mined at a Powder River strip mine, loaded into a BNSF rail car, unloaded at Gateway Pacific into a huge bulk ship flying a flag of convenience, shipped to Asia and burned in a power plant.
Supporters of coal exports say that’s too big a reach to study all of that, and illegal to boot. They cite court rulings limiting environmental reviews to “issues that are truly significant to the action in question, rather than amassing needless detail . . . (the review) need not address potential impacts that are unlikely, remote or highly speculative,” in the words of SSA’s Bob Watters. The life cycle, echoes Peabody’s Christopher J. Hagedorn, “is impractical and inappropriate and simply cannot be entertained by the Co-Lead Agencies.”
A huge economic cloud hangs over the life-cycle approach. In the short term, Hagedorn writes, “the real objective of the GPT project opponents is exposed — to create a lengthy, cumbersome and unwieldy EIS project unlikely to result in any meaningful conclusions on real and discernible project impacts in any rational time frame so as to prevent the project from advancing from permitting to construction.” Such a review, he warns, could prevent “vibrant export markets” in energy and commodities from functioning.
Some business leaders — and the Washington Public Ports Association — took a similar stand in May 2012, calling the wider scope “death by a thousand lawyers.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!