(Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series)
"Elections have consequences.” — Numerous politicians
November 6, 2012 is an important — perhaps critical — date in the effort to build the nation’s largest coal-export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. A final decision is still years away, but the 2012 election figures to play a huge role in how federal and state agencies approach their review of SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal.
Nationally, voters rejected Republican Mitt Romney’s pro-coal campaign while Washington voters elected Gov. Jay Inslee, who made his congressional reputation as a climate-change expert. Those elections have consequences — one is climate change.
President Barack Obama and Govs. Inslee and John Kitzhaber of Oregon form a green line confronting backers of Northwest coal exports. Letters from federal and state agencies regarding the scope of environmental reviews for coal export plans indicate the officials got the memo; several agencies posted strong reservations about the project and others muted previous support.
Despite protestations of independence, public-agency regulators are attuned to the views of elected executives. The 2012 elections were not good news for those who trade in coal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urged area-wide study of regional export terminals last year and its 2013 scoping comments suggested, “The (study) would appropriately include increases in regional train traffic and related air quality effects on human health, and the potential for effects to human health and the environment from increases in the long-range transportation of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.”
New EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is unlikely to soften that comment; the reverse could have been expected from a Romney appointee. Observers look for the second Obama Administration to get tougher on climate-change. The pressure appears to be ratcheting up in the White House; Bloomberg News, which monitors the topic closely, reported last week that Obama “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects.” Coal-export terminals would fit that description; industry leaders are very concerned.
How deeply any shade of green penetrates into the inner soul of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is questionable, however. The Corps is a chain-of-command organization and the president is commander-in-chief; that said, the Corps has always carefully protected its turf and has never been described as “green.” The Corps is the lead federal agency on three Northwest export-terminal proposals and has sent mixed signals on how broad a study it will undertake.
The Corps, with Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology, will release a summary of comments on the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT ) proposal soon, but determining the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement will be months later.
State-agency scoping comments reveal as much in what was unsaid as what was said. When Gateway Pacific Terminal surfaced in 2010, it appeared to have the support of Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had ties to some SSA Marine lobbyists. She did not join Kitzhaber in requesting an area-wide review and her directors of Agriculture and Commerce publicly promoted the terminal. Inslee, in recent remarks to Crosscut writers, promised to push for an area-wide study, including impacts on climate change.
State Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse is now calling for a statewide study of rail impacts on Washington farmlands and commodity shipments; his comments no longer promote GPT as a farm-export terminal. Commerce Director Rogers Weed, in an extensive and nuanced comment, rejects including climate change as a review subject and urges consideration of jobs and tax revenues — major points for GPT — but he also wants a wide examination of “externalities,” such as public costs of added train traffic and economic losses to rail-line communities.
Health Secretary Mary Selecky is calling for a separate Health Impact Assessment of an extensive list of medical concerns along the entire rail corridor within Washington. As with many commentators, she focuses primarily on rail transportation, including coal dust and diesel exhaust issues but also including noise and blockage of access for emergency vehicles.
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