Longview coal port: a big plan well hidden

New documents show that an Australian company is planning to ship much more coal to China through Longview than it acknowledged. State and local officials may have been deliberately deceived.

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

New documents show that an Australian company is planning to ship much more coal to China through Longview than it acknowledged. State and local officials may have been deliberately deceived.

The giant coal port planned for Longview might be much bigger than advertised, and a lot of people are unhappy about the developer's until-now-covert plans, The New York Times reported on Feb. 15. It's not every day that Cowlitz County makes the Times. But then it's not every day that documents suggest a major corporation has deliberately deceived state and local officials about a project's scale — or that a small Columbia River port becomes a focal point for climate-change litigation.

Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Australia's Ambre Energy, had said it would ship up to 5.7 million tons a year through the port. The coal would be strip-mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, hauled by train through the Columbia River Gorge to Longview, and loaded onto bulk carriers for the long trip to China — which doesn't have enough coal to meet its growing demand. Each coal train would be 125 or possibly 150 cars long, pulled by four locomotives. Even a 125-car train is more than a mile long.

Now, it turns out that Millennium may have grossly understated the planned scale of the operation, proposed for a private terminal near Longview. “Court records show that leaders of the company planning to build the facility, now called Millennium Bulk Terminals, tried to limit what state officials knew about its long-term goals during the early permitting process last year,” the Times reported. “The company’s initial application described a facility that could export up to five million tons of coal per year. But court records show that the company hoped to greatly expand that amount in a second phase to 20 million tons or even 60 million tons annually."

Last November, the Cowlitz County commissioners granted Millennium a shoreline substantial development permit for the project. Climate Solutions, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and the Washington Environmental Council, represented by Earthjustice, have appealed the permit decision to the state Shorelines Hearings Board. The board has scheduled a hearing for April 11. It has just granted the petitioners' motion to include the new evidence of planned expansion in the case. Meanwhile, at the end of last year, the state Department of Ecology intervened to challenge the permit. And Millennium has moved to have the appeal dismissed. The board will hear arguments about that on Feb. 25.

The documents about expansion plans emerged as part of the discovery process. “This stuff was buried in the middle of ... 35,000 pages of junk,” Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman says. While the figure of 60 millions tons may be pretty speculative — it appears in what seems to be a confidential report aimed at investors — Hasselman says that “from a legal perspective, the most troubling piece is a thoroughly-fleshed-out plan to go to 25 million.” He says “its the oldest trick in the book to carve your project up into little pieces to avoid an EIS.”

But when is a plan not a plan? "Asked if the company plans to expand the facility, [Millennium CEO Joe] Cannon said, 'I don't want to sound like Bill Clinton here, but it depends on what you mean by 'plans,' " the Longview Daily News reported. The paper further quoted him: "There are people at the company in Australia and potential investors who would love to put more coal through this site. ... There is a big interest in expanding this facility. ... There are no current plans to do so.'"

At any scale, the dispute over the coal port is "really about the geopolitics of climate," says K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, which traps heat. It may at some future point be able to "sequester" the CO2 underground — the basis of the hope for "clean coal," which President Obama touted in his State of the Union address — but it isn't now. ("Some folks want wind and solar," the president said. "Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. . . . [W]e will need them all.") Thanks largely to its use of coal, China passed the United States five years ago as the world's main emitter of greenhouse gases.

The groups appealing the Longview permit argue that the county commissioners violated the State Environmental Policy Act when they concluded the project didn't require an environmental impact statement. The commissioners looked only at construction and operation of the coal terminal itself. They didn't consider the environmental impacts of mining or transporting the coal, or “the impacts of transportation and combustion of exported coal in Asia, and the influence of increased exports on supply, demand and price of coal in international markets, which has a strong influence on energy planning decisions by incentivizing coal-fired power production and disincentivizing environmentally preferable alternatives. This last issue is particularly consequential as the 5.7 million tons per year of coal exported by this facility will generate over 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually — roughly equivalent to the emissions of two million U.S. cars.”

The petitioning groups argued that their members would be harmed because, among other things, “operation of this project will result in significant increases in Washington state’s contribution to global emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants,” which will contribute to “human-induced climate instability” and “increased conventional air and water pollution in Washington state.”

The Department of Ecology has focused particularly on the greenhouse gases that those long coal trains would emit. Even within the borders of the state, the figure might be 75,000 metric tons per year.

Despite the rhetoric about clean energy, don't expect the United States to leave all that nasty combustible carbon in the ground. This country is the Persian Gulf of coal. U.S. coal reserves could supply all the nation's energy needs for centuries. Coal still generates roughly half the electricity used in this country, but many American utilities are switching to natural gas. They face the cost of cleaning up their emissions to meet increasingly rigorous environmental standards.

The utilities see carbon regulation or carbon taxes coming down the pike — although, with Republicans in control of the House and Obama's main energy adviser, Carol Browner, leaving the administration, neither taxes nor regulation will arrive any time soon. And natural gas prices have fallen. As a result, utilities have been abandoning coal — at least for now. Where can coal producers find new markets? In Asia. Both China and India are growing like gangbusters, and neither has an adequate local supply.

Reuters reported recently that "surging demand from Asia is pushing coal prices skyward, and suggested that "demand from India and China will continue to underpin prices. The duo recently emerged as among the greediest importers of coal — buying 10 times more from overseas than in 2003. And India's coal minister believes demand for the black rock will triple in the next two decades."

The trick is getting the coal to market. That's where Longview comes in — and perhaps Cherry Point and/or other Washington locations. A lot of coal currently goes through Vancouver, B.C., but that port has reached its capacity; and besides, it's a long way from the Power River basin.

The people who have all that coal sitting inside their borders would like to forget all this environmental quibbling and start those coal trains rolling. Forget the fact that Montana belongs to the Western Climate Agreement, and has therefore pledged to reduce its own carbon emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This is business. Montana has a lot of coal. And if Ambre wants to sell it to people who want to burn it in Asia, that's more than OK. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who came west to discuss the issue with Gov. Chris Gregoire, reacted angrily to the environmental groups' appeal. “I'm going to be calling ... Gregoire, and I might suggest to her that she remind her constituents that they've kept their lights on for 30 years with our coal,” Schweitzer said.

The state of Montana isn't the only — or the most powerful — outside force pushing for coal exports. “[T]he corporate power of coal port advocates is daunting,” Floyd McKay wrote in Crosscut this January. He explained that the cast of characters included “the world's largest stevedoring company (SSA Marine, owned by Seattle-based Carrix, Inc., in which Goldman Sachs has a stake), the region's dominant railroad (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), and one of the world's richest investors (Warren Buffett's Hathaway Inc. owns BNSF).”

Who are all these ragtag citizens' groups to stand in their way? That's basically one of the questions that Millennium raises in its motion to dismiss the appeal. It argues that the petitioners lack standing to challenge the permit on the issue of climate change. To have standing, members of the environmental groups would have to suffer a recognizable injury. But how can you prove any specific person is going to suffer any specific injury right now or in the immediate future from an incremental increase in greenhouse gas emissions caued by China's burning of coal — which might, in the absence of this project, be coal mined in or shipped through someplace else?

The company also argues that unless the legislature has created clear standards for greenhouse gas emissaions, the question remains “legislative,” so the courts — and the administrative hearing offices — must keep their hands off.

If Millennium won on the issue of standing, the decision could have enormous impacts on efforts to block or regulate any kind of activity that constributes to climate change. But Hasselman — who assumes that whoever wins on this issue before the Shorelines Hearings Board, the loser will appeal to the courts — notes that administrative hearing bodies and courts have granted standing liberally in SEPA cases. And he points out that in state courts, as opposed to federal courts, standing isn't a constitutional issue. Even if the petitioners wound up losing, the legislature could make sure that citizen groups would have standing after all.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Watson, who is handling the case for the Department of Ecology, dismisses the idea that this is solely a matter for the legislature. SEPA is very broad, she says, and it requires an agency granting a permit to consider all of a project's potential impacts. (For what it's worth, the legislature has also declared its “intent . . . that the state will: [l]imit and reduce emissions of greenhouse gas . . . [in order to] minimize the potential to export pollution.”)

Watson says Ecology is looking at the impacts of the Longview coal port as a stand-alone issue, rather than a precedent. But she also says that this is “probably the first case in Washington that tees up some of these issues” on climate change.

Even looking just at what would happen in Longview, the stakes are higher than they seemed last year. Certainly, the impact of the new coal port would be much greater than the Cowlitz County commissioners or anyone else outside Ambre realized at the time. And if the company really has deliberately deceived local and state officials, the politics may change radically. Hasselman thinks the record is clear. The New York Times article “just scratched the surface of the deception,” he says. “We think [the revelation of the coal port's planned scale] changes everything.”


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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.