Exporting Pollutants: No way to reduce a carbon footprint

Guest Opinion: Puget Sound's health is at risk if Washington becomes the fossil fuel gateway to Asia. President Obama says he's open to "better ideas." Time for state leaders to give him some.
Puget Sound's orca population is at its lowest level in 12 years.

Puget Sound's orca population is at its lowest level in 12 years. Credit: tifotter/Flickr

There was much ado over President Barack Obama’s long awaited climate speech this past month, which garnered praise for its laudable ambitions to reduce carbon pollution, and legitimate criticisms for its striking ironies. The most glaring omission was the president's failure to mention the climatic effects of exporting U.S. coal to Asia.

That oversight came just one week after the Acting Chief of Regulatory Programs for The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified before the U.S. Congress that the Corps would neither study the effects of burning American coal in Asia nor the cumulative impacts from three coal ports being proposed for the Pacific Northwest. The acting chief maintained that those significant impacts “are outside the Corps’ control and responsibility.”

The president's speech and the testimony of a high ranking Army Corps official beg the question: Does the Obama Administration actually think the United States can reduce its carbon footprint by exporting its pollutants?

First, the Corps’ interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is disputable, especially considering that two of the coal terminals proposed for Washington state are on the Columbia River and would result in increased shipping traffic.

NEPA actually authorizes the broadest review of impacts from such massive projects, including cumulative effects from associated endeavors such as transporting explosive crude from Canada and North Dakota through Northwest communities by rail and waterway.

No surprise. Taking the narrow view has long been a hallmark of the Corps, as documented in the five-part series by Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald, including "For Oil Projects, Corps’ Answer is Almost Always ‘Yes’" (9/13/2000).

While the Corps claims that international shipping is also outside its purview, it must review the impacts of the enormous bulk carriers — twice the size of oil tankers allowed to call on Puget Sound and lacking their tug escorts or double hull requirements — as they diesel through Washington and U.S. waters. These bulk carriers have the worst accident record of all cargo vessels.

Given the Corps’ dismal track record when it comes to conducting environmental analysis — it has yet to produce the Environmental Impact Statement for BP’s refinery dock expansion that was required by the Ninth Circuit Court eight years ago — all eyes now turn to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Peter Goldmark, the state's commissioner of public lands and head of its Department of Natural Resources, and Washington's Department of Ecology to fill this void.

The governor and the ecology department have clear authority over impacts to the marine environment associated with the unprecedented onslaught of fossil fuel infrastructures being proposed for Washington state. And any enterprise seeking to build a dock will also need a permit from Goldmark’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Indeed, DNR has an important card to play in the coal export debate. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point is surrounded by DNR’s Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, whose management plan calls for the restoration of the genetically unique herring stock found there.

At full buildout, GPT estimates it will require approximately 487 bulk carriers to ship 48-million tons of coal across the Pacific each year. These high-risk vessels would be competing for passage with oil tankers and other vessel traffic through the already congested shipping lanes around the San Juan Islands. How this impacts the risk of an oil spill is the subject of a current EPA-funded collaborative study hosted by the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee.

But as early as 1999, a DNR-commissioned study recognized that increased vessel traffic from the BP Refinery, less than a mile from GPT, "will inevitably increase the risk of an oil spill," and "if such a spill were to occur ... the impact to Cherry Point herring could be catastrophic." That was the conclusion before anyone understood the full scale of GPT and that the commodity in question would be coal.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 30, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article, glad to find Crosscut.com. Too much of mainstream journalism these days is getting bought out. For example: http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/reuterss_global_warming_about-.php

Gaythia

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 12:02 a.m. Inappropriate

There are already too many of these massive freighters going back and forth from the refinery and Intalco Aluminum plant at Cherry Point. Just stand on the tip of Lummi Island and watch them go by every single day, several times a day. Imagine 450 more chugging past the narrow gap between Orcas and Lummi every year, or the other direction--through the Haro Straits (where the Orcas have one of their main routes). We're screwed, people, if we let these plutocrats ship coal to China. It's simple: Goldman Sachs owns the coal, the port and the ships. Warren Buffet owns the BNSF railroad, the coal, and part of Goldman Sachs. They both own partial ownership of the factories in China that will burn the coal. They're all colluding to make the filthy lucre that means so much to them. These people don't give a rat's ass about our health or the health of the planet. They've got their piece of the pie. Let everyone else die. It's all about money. And the little guys will suffer from their rapacious greed.

NMSmith

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

It would be nice to hear some different views on this important matter. Seems like all I'm getting in "Crosscut" is the same view hashed over and over.

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

The article that needs to appear on Crosscut is one that details the extent of pseudo-environmentalism among the "progressives" of the Puget Sound. Examples are everywhere an open mind cares to look. I'm not sure Crosscut wants to rock the boat that hard, though.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

How about doing something about the bulk cargo carriers that bring iPods and iPhones and iPads from China, and the ones that bring Nissan LEAFs from Japan? Oh, but wait! A "progressive" and his toys cannot be separated!

NotFan

Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear NotFan - while I am no fan of yours either, I thought it appropriate for you to know that high value items such as electronics are carried in container ships and cars in RoRo ships, neither of which are bulk cargo carriers which transport low value materials on far less well maintained and operated vessels.

Posted Thu, Aug 1, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the condescending terminology lesson, which is the pseudo-environmentalist version of those gun nuts who go after people for calling a weapon "magazine" a "clip," allowing them to evade the point. But I do appreciate knowing that "progressive" toys arrive in container ships, which of course do not emit carbon into the atmosphere.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Aug 1, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

What is totally disingenuos about this article is that the reason that China is willing to pay for this coal, is because they can pay through the nose for it and still profitably manufacture all the consumer goods we and the E.U. want to buy.

If you reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S. and E.U. buy simply moving the manufacture of the things we buy to China or India, what global warming advantage has been gained.

If we didn't want to buy what China was selling, China would not be buying our coal to make it for us.

Posted Fri, Aug 2, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

This is absolutely true. The various hipsters love their toys assembled by happy Chinese slaves, while turning right around and decrying pollution. I love "progressive" hypocrisy.

NotFan

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