Big energy firm still hungry after backing out of OR coal plan

The withdrawal of Kinder Morgan from plans for coal exports from the Port of St. Helens still leaves other efforts in the works. And the company is hunting for other coal port sites.
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Coal at a Canadian terminal awaiting shipment.

The withdrawal of Kinder Morgan from plans for coal exports from the Port of St. Helens still leaves other efforts in the works. And the company is hunting for other coal port sites.

Thirty millions tons of coal a year were taken off the region’s export board Wednesday when the pipeline and terminals giant Kinder Morgan announced that it would no longer pursue a major coal terminal at the Port of St. Helens on Oregon’s Columbia River shore.

The announcement came quickly at a regular meeting of the Port of St. Helens, as Allen Fore, a Kinder Morgan spokesman, made a brief statement that the company’s “due diligence” had turned up site issues that made the site unfeasible. The Port was in the midst of an effort to rezone some 957 acres of open land from agriculture to industrial use to allow Kinder-Morgan to build a terminal. The facility would have shipped from 15 to 30 million tons of coal a year brought by rail from the Powder River Basin.

No originating coal company had been named. The plan by Kinder Morgan, which bills itself as one of the North America's three largest energy firms, called for coal to be loaded onto ships bound for Asia. But Kinder Morgan remains nterested in being part of the rush to export coal to China from the United States.

The so-called “site issues” did not include a general pushback in the region against coal exports and the trains that carry the coal, Fore told commissioners. But the previous night a large and clearly anti-terminal crowd turned up at a county hearing on the rezoning proposal. “We wanted to be sure it wasn’t going to be a rubber-stamp deal and if it was, it would be appealed,” Darrel Whipple of Alston told Crosscut.

Whipple lives between two small Oregon towns that would be heavily impacted by perhaps a dozen coal trains a day if the terminal is built. City councils in Rainier and Clatskanie have raised objections to the project.

“Opposition has grown as people become more aware of the guaranteed impact along the rail line of the five cities that will be split along the rail line,” said Whipple, who is active in Clean Columbia County, a citizen group opposing the export terminal.
The short-line railroad Portland & Western would need major upgrades to handle coal; currently it handles one or two trains a day, running through the middle of small towns, where many people fear being unable to cross the tracks if additional trains rumble through.

Multiple other issues compound the coal port proposal, not the least of which is Oregon’s strict land-use laws, which could threaten rezoning of farmland to industrial use. State Land Board permits would be required for docks to load the coal, and air and water permits would also be required. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has been critical of coal exports and has called for an area-wide environmental study of the topic.

Wednesday’s announcement was the second major setback to Kinder Morgan’s plans at St. Helens. Last year the Port made agreements with both Kinder Morgan and Ambre Energy to pursue coal-export proposals. But Kinder-Morgan’s hopes to build were vetoed by Portland General Electric Co., which leases a large site housing a gas-fired generator nearby. PGE, which for years operated Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant near Boardman, cited concerns over coal dust and air pollution if KM constructed its coal terminal near the PGE generator, and refused to sublease its land to KM. That put in motion the Port’s plan to rezone the nearby tract to move the coal port further from PGE.

Kinder Morgan’s decision won’t affect Ambre Energy, an Australian firm that would like to export some 8 million tons a year from St. Helens, barging the coal down the Columbia from a transfer point at the Port of Morrow, upstream from Portland. That plan is currently in limbo, lacking a Corps of Engineers permit and state permits for the site where coal would be transferred from rail to barges.

The decision does, however, withdraw the third-largest coal-export proposal in the Pacific Northwest. Kinder Morgan’s decision leaves in place a 48-million-tons proposal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, for which environmental review will begin later this year, and a 44-million-tons proposal by Ambre at Longview on the Columbia across from St. Helens.

The Longview proposal is probably a year behind Cherry Point in terms of review. Already off the table were small terminals at Coos Bay on the southern Oregon coast and Grays Harbor. Kinder Morgan’s Fore told commissioners the company will continue to look for a West Coast export site. Hee did not refer to prospective sites and a call for additional comment was not immediately returned.


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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.