Should Longview help China burn more coal?

Washington state is eager to get out of coal-fired power generation by 2025, or earlier if environmental groups get their way. Enabling China to fire up more of them seems to environmentalists like a policy contradiction.

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Shipping around Longview could expand beyond logs and other products to include sending coal to China.

Washington state is eager to get out of coal-fired power generation by 2025, or earlier if environmental groups get their way. Enabling China to fire up more of them seems to environmentalists like a policy contradiction.

“What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn,” said Henry David Thoreau. A coalition of environmental groups is sounding downright Thoreauvian about a proposal to make Longview, Washington into a major coal port.

The Cowlitz County commissioners have approved a permit application for port development at Longview that would enable an Australian company to ship Wyoming coal across the Pacific to China.

The coal would be strip-mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, hauled in mile-long trains through the Columbia River Gorge to Longview, and loaded onto bulk carriers for the trip east. Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Australia's Ambre Energy, would ship nearly 6 million tons a year through the port.

Climate Solutions, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Washington Environmental Council, and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, have appealed the permit decision to the state Shorelines Hearings Board. Their concerns go far beyond the potential impact on Longview or the Columbia River estuary (where port development would destroy habitat at the same time that the federal government, touting estuary restoration as a way to mitigate the damage done by Columbia River system dams, is spending millions to restore it).

China burns a lot of coal. In 2006, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases. The combustion puts large and growing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Although the Chinese mine a lot of coal on their own, China doesn't have enough to meet its growing demand. We do. The United States has plenty of coal, some of it strip-mined cheaply in the Powder River Basin. That coal could be shipped to China at a profit.

The dispute over the coal port is “really about the geopolitics of climate,” says K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. In the past, coal was a resource used regionally, but the market for it is becoming globalized. What is changing now is that “China's demand has exceeded its own supply,” says Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman. “The price point has changed so that it's economically viable to ship all that coal over to China.” Looking for markets in China is “a direct response to the fact that Americans are largely saying 'no' to coal-fired power plants.”

Indeed, while coal still generates roughly half the electricity used in this country, many American utilities are switching to natural gas. (Converting the Canadian-owned AltaVista coal plant in Centralia to natural gas by 2015 is on the Washington environmental community's new legislative agenda. The governor has been trying to negotiate a conversion by 2025.) As utility companies see carbon regulation or carbon taxes coming down the pike and face the cost of cleaning up their emissions to meet increasingly rigorous environmental standards, while natural gas prices drop, they're going to Plan B.

Where can coal producers find new markets? In Asia.

And where can it be loaded onto ships? Longview isn't the only place. Companies have already been looking at other sites. The Port of Tacoma has received inquiries from Ambre and others about shipping huge volumes of coal but has decided it's not interested. Tacoma has other options, but many smaller ports may try to take whatever they can get.

The Cowlitz County commissioners have said that the project will have no major environmental impact. Yet they considered only its immediate local effects, not its place in a chain of events that could accelerate climate change. Hasselman says that's a misreading of present law. The commissioners “only reached that conclusion by drawing a bubble around” this project, says Hasselman. However, “the existing legal infrastructure . . . does require some consideration of climate impacts.”

Coal shipments from Washington ports would be nothing new. Seattle and Tacoma both shipped coal in the late 19th century. For a couple of decades, coal mined in the Cascades was Seattle's leading export. Trains hauled the coal to the Seattle waterfront, where it was stored and then loaded onto steamers. Most of it was destined for San Francisco.

Longview was never a coal port, but it has long been an industrial one. Weyerhaeuser, which has shifted its operations from northwestern to southwestern Washington, ships logs and lumber through the port. Not so long ago, hundreds of workers made aluminum there. During World War II, Reynolds Metals built an aluminum plant at Longview — the region's second — to basically turn Columbia River hydropower into metal for Boeing aircraft. After the war, the aluminum smelter kept churning out metal for more than half a century. The plant shut down in 2001, as have most of the other plants that once made the Pacific Northwest the nation's center of aluminum production. The coal port would take over the old aluminum smelter site.

Loading coal would replace only a few of the 925 jobs that disappeared when the aluminum plant shut down. But in this economy, any job looks better than none at all. Environmentalists who oppose the coal port are well aware of this, and know that promises of pie-in-the-sky jobs in a new green economy won't suffice. “I think there is a real imperative to react to the need for jobs in that community,” Golden says. Nevertheless, a coal port is “not a good jobs strategy overall for America .... It's going to create a lot more jobs in China than it does here.”

But what are the alternatives? The real challenge, Golden suggests, isn't just stopping this one proposal. It's figuring out how “communities like Longview (can) confidently choose a different economic path.”

The environmentalists who oppose the Longview coal port think it's not enough for Washington to limit its own carbon output. They don't want the Columbia River to become a major conduit for the next stage of the fossil-fuel economy.

And yet, that's exactly what could happen. If all goes according to various private corporations' cumulative plans, the Columbia will become a two-way thoroughfare for huge shipments of fuel and energy industry equipment, with coal moving downstream and enormous cells for refining Alberta tar sands moving up. Canada's largest oil company, Imperial Oil, 70 percent of which is owned by ExxonMobil, wants to ship 207 huge modules for processing tar sands through the Northwest to Alberta.

The modules, manufactured in South Korea by Sun Jin Geotec, are shipped by freighter to the port of Vancouver, Washington, where they are unloaded, then loaded onto barges. They are pushed up the Columbia and Snake rivers, through the (heavily subsidized) lock systems at eight dams, to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, where they're unloaded again.

The plan is to reload them onto huge trucks. Filling the blacktop from shoulder to shoulder, traveling at night, the trucks would creep up Highway 12 through Lolo Pass into Montana, through Missoula, and then along two-lane highways to Sweetwater on the Canadian border. Opponents object to potential impacts along the highway transportation corridor, to the consumption of water and destruction of habitat in Alberta, and, not least, to the effect on climate of refining tar sands. This is an energy-intensive process that puts a lot of carbon into the air, and burning the end product in millions of gas tanks puts out a lot more. As opposition gathers steam, the transportation company still hasn't gotten permits to haul oversized loads along state highways, and modules are stacking up in Lewiston.

The climate change issue globalizes every project for extracting, transporting, or burning fossil fuels. It gives people who would want to stop the projects for local reasons another political and legal tool. And it points up policy contradictions, if not hypocrisy. For example, a 2007 Washington law requires any new fossil-fuel-fired generating plant that would produce more CO2 than a natural gas plant to sequester the carbon emissions — that is, keep the carbon from escaping into the atmosphere, where it could add to the greenhouse effect. (Sequestration underlies the concept of “clean coal” — which many people consider an oxymoron. The idea is to make the burning of coal carbon-neutral, probably by pumping CO2 into old oil wells or elsewhere deep inside the earth.)

If we oppose the burning of coal in power plants without sequestration in Washington, it makes little sense for us to trans-ship coal so that it can be burned without sequestration someplace else.

"(T)he 5.7 million tons per year of coal exported by this facility will generate over 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually,” say the opponents in their petition for review, “roughly equivalent to the emissions of two million U.S. cars.  To put this in perspective, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in Washington state, the Transalta Centralia Generating Facility, emits approximately 8 million tons annually. The Longview Terminal will export more coal than is currently used in Washington state.”

But if Powder River coal isn't shipped from Longview or another Columbia River port, won't it just be shipped from someplace else? Not necessarily. “Powder River coal is quite cheap to get out of the ground,” Hasselman says. “The primary constraint is transportation.... They can't ship this stuff to Texas” at a profit. “I don't even think they can ship it to California,” and for the time being, “Vancouver is at capacity.” That leaves the Pacific Northwest. This region may play a key part in — and therefore may have a veto power over — the whole process.

Not everyone agrees with opponents to the global shipping of coal. “Fifty percent of the electricity in this country is generated by coal,” Cowlitz County Commission Chairman George Raiter said after the vote. “Why are we saying China can’t burn it?”

The opponents don't want anyone to burn it. “We are in the moral hazard zone on this,” Golden says. “We are in the wrong participating in any way in accelerating this.” He sees the flap over the coal port as “the start of a long discussion about what is going to happen on the west coast of the United States.

“It's an opportunity to reflect on what...this economic crossroads look(s) like,” he says. “We are past the point at which we can 'protect' the environment from the ravages of the fossil fuel economy. We have to replace the fossil fuel economy.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.