Federal decision hands coal ports a big victory

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided on a limited review of environmental effects for a proposed coal port at Bellingham. Opponents have sought a broader study of sending coal to China for burning.
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Coal trains already go to the Westshore Terminals Roberts Bank facility at Delta, British Columbia.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided on a limited review of environmental effects for a proposed coal port at Bellingham. Opponents have sought a broader study of sending coal to China for burning.

The lead federal agency reviewing Northwest coal-export terminals has rejected an area-wide approach in its study and will examine the terminals on a case-by-case basis, a Congressional committee heard today from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps' decision is good news for the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed north of Bellingham, the Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview and a smaller terminal at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River.

Opponents of the terminals, which have been planned for massive shipments of coal that would be burned in Asia, have insisted that the cumulative impacts on rail traffic and climate change call for a unified study. Only the Corps can undertake a review that would cross state borders.

“The Corps will limit consideration to the facilities, but effects of the burning of the coal is too far removed from our actions to be considered as an effect of our actions,” said Jennifer Moyer, the Corps’ acting chief of regulatory programs. Moyer also rejected an area-wide review of railroad traffic issues, saying that was beyond the Corps’ control. She said district commanders in Seattle and Portland would make the decisions on the individual proposals.

In Washington state, the Corps has teamed with the state Department of Ecology and host counties (Whatcom and Cowlitz) to conduct environmental reviews. Oregon agencies are involved on the Morrow project but the Corps has yet to decide if it will even do a full environmental review there.

Although Moyer’s statement to the House Commerce and Energy Committee is the first confirmation that the Corps will limit its review, the Corps has never indicated interest in an area-wide review. Opponents had hoped that the Obama administration, through its Council on Environmental Quality, would intervene to put climate change on the table.  Democrats on the committee urged the Corps to reconsider.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told Moyer, “The Corps is making a big mistake ... I urge you to reconsider.” Waxman cited the effect on climate change of burning more coal in Asia. Moyer agreed with the importance of burning coal to climate change, but repeated, “These issues are not part of the Corps' scope of analysis.”

Democrats on the committee pushed Moyer on her statements, but she insisted “we don’t control coal mining, we don’t control shipping by rail.” 

Republicans on the committee praised the Corps but Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky, who chaired the hearing, condemned the Obama administration: “In the energy sector the most important issue to this administration is global warming, more important than jobs and the trade deficit, more important that the opportunity to reduce global poverty. That’s why people are coming to America to ask for our energy. And yet this president is making the statement that global warming is more important than anything else when it comes to energy.”

Republicans stressed jobs and economic benefits from exporting coal and natural gas and pushed a panel of regulators to streamline the process; some of the House Republicans talked about a “war on coal.” Fred Upton of Michigan blasted environmentalists for delaying energy projects. Many people in the world have no electricity and the United States, he said, should be a “force of change to bring nations out of poverty.”

All that is missing is infrastructure, said Upton,  “The cumbersome federal approval process is out of step.  ... The private sector has made rapid progress in unlocking our energy.” Video of the hearing is here, click on "Energy Abundance."

Assuming the Corps’ decision stands, opponents of the terminals will increase their pressure on state and county agencies. The Corps has jurisdiction over the waters of Puget Sound and the Columbia River, and also is charged with negotiating with Native American nations. In the case of Gateway Pacific, the Lummi Nation has been prominent in its opposition to the terminal.

The Congressional hearing serves to highlight the increasingly partisan nature of the coal-terminal debate. Republicans control the House and their committee members were uniform in their support for energy exports; Democrats picked up arguments raised by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who had asked the Corps to combine its review of the terminals, citing both climate change and the impacts of rail traffic. The issue is being raised in local campaigns this year and is expected to be an issue in 2014 state and congressional races.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, testifying before the committee, urged Congress to consider green jobs and reject the idea that economic growth depends on more energy use. “More trains will hurt us economically,” said McGinn, citing impacts of rail traffic on small towns and Seattle’s industrial area, “We have better ways to create jobs.”

McGinn also cited climate change, “Unless we stop these terminals from being built we will be responsible for impacting climate change around the world.”  The terminals would have a negative impact on jobs, McGinn asserted, with job losses due to rail traffic in particular. “Shouldn’t some agency be charged with examining all the impacts? ... I believe the decision by the Corps should not be allowed to stand.”

McGinn was involved in a testy exchange with West Virginia Republican David McKinley, who accused him of creating a “photo op” for his re-election campaign and told him to “look at the crime rate in your city” instead of accusing coal of causing climate change. McGinn stood his ground for the city and climate change, and said the coal should be left in the ground.

“We take climate disruption very seriously in the Northwest,” added K.C. Golden of Seattle’s Climate Solutions, citing the effect on the region’s snowpack and waters. The region is attempting a “transition to a clean economy,” he said. Shipping coal to China "would be a tragic and abrupt reversal of that transition” and would “lock in” investments in “destructive industries.” Golden told congress members that it is hard for local officials to review large projects and there is a need for an overall review that would include climate change.

Other speakers at a panel with McGinn and Golden focused, however, on the increase in jobs through coal exports. Ross Eisenberg, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, cited benefits from associated jobs and praised the Corps for limiting the scope of its review. “This is a great first step towards creating thousands of jobs,” Eisenberg said, accusing opponents of attempting to delay the permitting process. Spokesmen for the natural gas industry cited technological changes and urged regulators to streamline the process of approving export terminals.

Terminal opponents voiced disapproval of the Corps’ decision. “It is a mistake for the Army Corps to leave us all in the dark about the real-life impacts coal export would cause across the West,” said Cesia Kearns, acting director of Power Past Coal,  “But if the Corps won’t undertake an area-wide review, we certainly expect them to follow the law, and for our state leaders and agencies to step up and for them all to do a full and thorough review of the all impacts at each of the proposed coal export terminals, including at Port of Morrow in Oregon.” 

The Corps’ Moyer also said, for the first time, that by the end of June the Corps will be ready to formally announce the scope of environmental review of Gateway Pacific, but local Corps officials did not agree the announcement could come that soon. The decision on what issues will be reviewed is the first critical step in the environmental review process; although state and federal environmental regulations differ, agencies have been attempting to coordinate their review. Once the scoping decision is rendered, consultants will begin their work — expected to last up to two years — leading up to final decisions by local, state and federal agencies to issue, modify or reject permits.

The scoping process is expected to start later this summer for the Millennium terminal at Longview; it would handle about 44 million tons of coal a year, compared to 48 million tons at Gateway Pacific and 8 million at the Oregon port.


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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.