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Coal Wars: How voters are shaping their leaders' decisions

Last year's elections brought bad news for promoters of coal exports through Northwest ports. But a vote this November could raise prospects for at least one proposed facility, near Bellingham.
Public agency representatives listen to citizens about coal exports: Randel Perry, Corps of Engineers (left), Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County and Jeannie Summerhays, Department of Ecology.

Public agency representatives listen to citizens about coal exports: Randel Perry, Corps of Engineers (left), Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County and Jeannie Summerhays, Department of Ecology. Floyd McKay

Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee and Chief Bill James at a rally against Gateway Pacific on Cherry Point in September of 2012.

Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee and Chief Bill James at a rally against Gateway Pacific on Cherry Point in September of 2012. Floyd McKay

Activists gathered 40,000 signatures on an anti-coal petition to Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark

Activists gathered 40,000 signatures on an anti-coal petition to Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark Power Past Coal

(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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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 21, 5:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Mitt Romney's pro-coal campaign? I missed that. And Governor Inslee is a "climate change expert"? Even with a glut of cheap natural gas coal is still producing 37% of our electrical generation. That's OK for us I guess, we need the electricity. Korea, China, Japan? well they can go nuclear. Moving coal has environmental side effects but they are small. As it stands now coal can be transported through Seattle and Bellingham to BC ports. There is nothing to prevent it. If the author wanted to make a case for a coal export facility near Longview instead of Cherry point I think he could be a lot more convincing.

kieth

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

The BC coal ports are at capacity. Exports through the east and Gulf coasts cost a lot more.
Coal in the US is on the ropes because of cheap natural gas and gradual removal of coals environmental subsidies (i.e. increased air pollution control), and if any sort of Carbon tax occurs, the situation gets even worse for the coal industry. The reality is that the demand for coal in the US is decreasing rapidly. So, the industry desperately needs to export or die. There are mines being proposed in the Powder River Basin that are purely for that purpose.

And preventing export from the PNW will have global impact. Any other route is going to be more expensive. The result is the cost in Asia of coal exported from the US or competing coal from anywhere else will be higher. Higher prices mean less consumption and more attractive alternatives. Its economics 101.

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 5:43 p.m. Inappropriate

The BC ports may be at capacity but capacity can be increased: see

http://www.mining.com/british-columbia-doubling-coal-export-capacity-70930/.

Natural gas prices are cheap, I think below the cost of production at this time, but that condition will not last forever. A decade maybe, maybe less. In the meantime consumption of gas is rising steadily. At some point the production cost of natural gas has to be covered,,, probably at a price roughly double what it is now. Yes, the coal industry needs to export coal (natural gas industry is making the same argument) and we here in utopia have to export airplanes. It's a system; call it economics 201.

kieth

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