Politicians dread an “October surprise,” a last-minute event that changes their campaign. Television documentary producers dread the time between final production and the broadcast date.
“Coal,” an impressive 30-minute production by KCTS and EarthFix, had its “October surprise” this week, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that climate change was off the table for its environmental review of coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
Climate change is at the heart of “Coal,” rightfully so in my view, and even if the Corps doesn’t plan on viewing the documentary, the program deserves to have a large audience in the region. (The first KCTS 9 airing is at 7:30 p.m. tonight, June 19; a full schedule for rebroadcasts on KCTS and Yakima's KYVE is here. The show can be watched online here.)
The documentary deals with SSA Marine’s proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham; it would handle 52 million tons of exports a year, of which 48 million tons would be Powder River Basin coal bound for Asia.
A winsome 12-year-old named Rachel Howell put it better than any of the adults in the program: “My generation will pay a higher price for the global warming than you do. This is the future that you’re creating for us and this isn’t the future that we want.” Later in the program she adds, “You only have one lifetime and if you stink it up with coal and you ruin it and you make global warming bigger, you’ll go away, but the stuff you do won’t. And my generation has to deal with the generation that’s burning coal and we didn’t do anything wrong and yet we still have deal with the problem.”
Rachel is one of several compelling speakers in the program; there are no politicians or agency heads, no “spokespersons” and no complex scientific or economic presentations. When I first saw Rachel, my reaction was “stereotype;” her parents are prototypical “greenies”; both work for environmental organizations. But they don’t appear; the documentary team found Rachel at the Seattle meeting on the scope of the Corps' environmental review, and the youngster is good. She talks in a language we all can understand and I think she speaks for a lot of young people.
Young people, women and college graduates are rapidly shifting in their views on the coal-export question; in a poll announced today (June 19), regional support for the terminals dropped from 55 percent to 41 percent in the last year; opposition increased from 27 percent to 36 percent.
One of the tricks in producing documentaries—I did more than a dozen for King Broadcasting three decades ago—is to tell a story through the voices of others, in everyday language that doesn’t talk down to an audience. Filmmakers Katie Campbell and Michael Werner do that and, although they may be criticized by those who want more complex data or a televised Power Point, this is a good product.
It is meticulously balanced, and understandable to the neophyte. Charts, graphs and dodgy economic estimates are largely missing. This is a primer, not a definitive study. EarthFix on its excellent website provides much detail for viewers attracted to this complex topic.
What ultimately emerges, however, is a dissonance that reflects the reality of the terminal debate: the opposing sides really operate in separate universes and they approach the debate in totally different ways.
Proponents, effectively represented by SSA Marine’s Bob Watters and articulate blue-collar workers, focus on the here-and-now: longshoreman Darren Williams understandably wants a job nearer his Bellingham home, miner Phil Dillinger and train engineer Sharraim Allen like their jobs and have no concerns about handling coal. Jobs and exports are good, and the terminals will obey environmental regulations. Coal will be mined and burned in any event. Let’s get on with it.
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