Coal Wars: Export backers push jobs, try to limit environmental review

Supporters of a coal port near Bellingham want to keep the focus on what they see as the main issues: More jobs and revenue for local governments.
Crosscut archive image.

SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters addresses pro-terminal crowd at Ferndale.

Supporters of a coal port near Bellingham want to keep the focus on what they see as the main issues: More jobs and revenue for local governments.

An unprecedented series of seven statewide public forums on a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham drew nearly 9,000 people to crowded hearings. Most of the big companies, public agencies and opposition groups weighed in with much less fanfare. At the agencies charged with an environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal approach a first benchmark, a summary of some 124,000 comments, Crosscut today begins a three-part analysis of those last-minute comments from major players. Today, we look at the corporations seeking the terminal.

Peabody Coal calls it a “life cycle” analysis and SSA Marine says it's a “lifespan” review, but by any name or description it’s what most concerns the big companies pushing coal-export terminals in Washington.

That’s clear in voluminous official comments from Peabody, SSA and the BNSF Railway made at the close of public scoping testimony in January. Those comments are now in the cross-hairs of three public agencies charged with determining what must be studied in a complex environmental review of  the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County and State Department of Ecology are collaborating as the lead agencies on the review.

There are wide-ranging implications in a so-called “life cycle” or “lifespan” environmental review. It would go beyond the usual examinations of the immediate environmental effects of a project in its own area to look potentially at regional and even national and international effects.

Opponents of the Bellingham terminal and another proposed at Longview, citing coal’s role in climate change, say global warming is an environmental impact of the terminals. Other activists oppose coal on health issues and fear a major increase in train or ship traffic. A life-cycle approach could study most if not all of these aspects.

A decision to conduct such a wide-ranging review could set a precedent for other projects across the nation. And it could make it much more complicated for the world’s largest terminal operator, the world’s largest private coal company and the nation’s second-largest railroad to win approval of their massive project. Gateway Pacific would handle 48 million tons a year of coal — Peabody and Arch Coal, the two largest potential Gateway shippers, together have options to ship 40 tons — making the terminal the largest in North America.

“Life cycle,” a term used at least a dozen times in Peabody’s 29-page scoping document, may be defined as “all stages of development.” A chunk of coal could be mined at a Powder River strip mine, loaded into a BNSF rail car, unloaded at Gateway Pacific into a huge bulk ship flying a flag of convenience, shipped to Asia and burned in a power plant.

Supporters of coal exports say that’s too big a reach to study all of that, and illegal to boot. They cite court rulings limiting environmental reviews to “issues that are truly significant to the action in question, rather than amassing needless detail . . . (the review) need not address potential impacts that are unlikely, remote or highly speculative,” in the words of SSA’s Bob Watters. The life cycle, echoes Peabody’s Christopher J. Hagedorn, “is impractical and inappropriate and simply cannot be entertained by the Co-Lead Agencies.”

A huge economic cloud hangs over the life-cycle approach. In the short term, Hagedorn writes, “the real objective of the GPT project opponents is exposed — to create a lengthy, cumbersome and unwieldy EIS project unlikely to result in any meaningful conclusions on real and discernible project impacts in any rational time frame so as to prevent the project from advancing from permitting to construction.” Such a review, he warns, could prevent “vibrant export markets” in energy and commodities from functioning.

Some business leaders — and the Washington Public Ports Association — took a similar stand in May 2012, calling the wider scope “death by a thousand lawyers.”

It is difficult to dispute Hagedorn’s comment about slowing the process; delay probably benefits terminal opponents. Already, arguments over scope of the review threaten to overshadow the carefully crafted pro-terminal arguments of project supporters, n particular SSA Marine.

The big Seattle-based terminal developer has amassed a library of documents and studies to support its basic case: Cherry Point is a perfect deep-water port, American coal needs Asian markets and Northwest Washington needs jobs.

SSA Marine declares itself well-prepared to deal with a typical environmental review: land, air and water quality, traffic, fish and wildlife habitat and a loosely-defined “socioeconomic” review. SSA Marine zeroes in on the “economic” side of the latter to push its “jobs and taxes” agenda, a best-seller in much of Whatcom County.

Like the life cycle question, the jobs argument involves a fair bit of speculation when it estimates indirect spin-off benefits in the community. Tax benefits from a $664 million facility are more tangible; they would go a long way toward funding Ferndale and Blaine schools. SSA doesn’t confront the “socio” side of the equation, however, or mention the word “health.” Most of the social concerns come from rail-side communities well beyond the boundaries of the export terminal — and thus beyond the scope of the review as defined by proponents.

Just as SSA Marine and Peabody Coal reject a life-cycle study, BNSF Railway rejects review of its thousand miles of track from mine to terminal. “It would be speculative and not reasonably foreseeable that the GPT project would increase rail traffic on any particular route,” BNSF’s F.E. Kalb Jr. writes. From Everett north, 18 trains would more than double present rail traffic, but BNSF insists that its business is so complex and volatile that coal trains for GPT would not require any upgrades to the system.

Turning to topics likely to be studied, Kalb noted a 2011 company policy to require “topping” of coal cars with a water-based solution to contain coal dust, and the purchase of 2,800 new, more advanced locomotives since 2000, to reduce diesel pollution. 

To the degree that regulators stick to traditional environmental topics, the terminal stands a better chance of approval, albeit with significant requirements for mitigation. The further the study ventures outside project boundaries and topics, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to justify proceeding. “Life cycle” is more than a catchy term.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how major opposition groups define their case.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.