American Coal Companies Look To The Northwest For Export Opportunities Part Two

Aug 23, 2012

American coal companies are looking to the Northwest as the fastest way to bring their product from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to Asian markets. There are now 5 ports in Washington and Oregon considering coal export terminals. In part two of our series on Coal in the Northwest we head to the site of what could one day be the largest coal export facility on the west coast, Bellingham, Washington. 

Kevin Ranker points his motorboat towards Cherry Point and guns the engine.

Kevin Ranker: “It’s gonna be a bumpy one!”

Ranker’s the state senator who represents the nearby San Juan Islands.

As we come around a bend in the coast we can see an oil refinery and an aluminum smelter off in the distance. Between them is a long stretch of tree-lined waterfront.

This is the proposed site of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

It would be big enough to handle 48 million tons of coal per year. That’s equivalent to almost half the amount of coal the entire country exports right now.
Almost 500 ships a year would be passing through this waterway on their way to and from Asia.

As an islander, Ranker spends a lot of time on the water. So do many of his constituents. Ranker shares their fear that all of these ships moving back and forth will increase the likelihood of an oil spill.    

Kevin Ranker: “I’m hearing a lot of concern. Mostly from people who are fearful of what this will mean. We’re going to see an environmental and an economic impact that will devastate Washington State.”

Each of these ships carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel.

Ranker looks across the water at an oil tanker parked at the refinery.

Kevin Ranker: “If we dramatically increase the vessel traffic then we need to dramatically increase the oil spill preparedness and response program and who’s going to pay for that increase?”

That’s one of the questions at the core of the debate over coal exports in the Northwest: Who picks up the tab? Ranker’s not getting an answer to that question.

The coal companies have been very good to Wyoming. They’ve funneled millions of tax dollars into state and county coffers to build things like recreational centers, schools and other public projects.

But that’s money for Wyoming. Those companies aren’t based in Washington or Oregon, so the Northwestern states won’t see direct tax revenue from them.

Craig Cole is a spokesman for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. He argues that economic activity anywhere in the country is good for the entire country.  

Craig Cole: “I guess you could say that building cars in Detroit doesn’t help us but yes it does because it strengthens the national economy and we’re a part of that.”

If all five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon are built they could create hundreds of long-term jobs at the ports, with several thousand workers employed during the initial phases of construction.

The Association of Washington Businesses as well as some of the most powerful labor unions in Oregon and Washington have come out in support of coal exports.

Craig Cole says that’s no surprise in this economy.

Craig Cole: “I’m kind of pragmatic. I think if we’ve got something that can fuel jobs, rebalance trade, we should take advantage of it. Right now we need to sell whatever we can sell, whether it’s a natural resource based commodity or whether it’s high tech.”

Environmental groups say the full cost of exporting coal through the Northwest outweighs the economic benefits. Increased train traffic will mean more air pollution, dust, noise and traffic disturbances in communities along the rail lines.

And that’s to say nothing of the effect of burning the coal at the end of its voyage to Asia.

Richard Morse: “Coal is the single largest source of CO2 emissions which makes it really the heart of the climate problem.”

Richard Morse is a coal expert at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.

He says global coal consumption is expected to rise by 65 percent in the next 20 years or so.

Right now Asia uses 5 billion tons of coal every year.

The amount of coal that could be exported through the Northwest would be about 2 percent of that.

Richard Morse: “Are the emissions that come out of the West coast if they export that coal going to make or break climate change? No. Is how we deal with that going to set an important precedent for other fuels and future more comprehensive policy? Yes it is.”

Right now the U.S. doesn’t have a national policy in place to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That means coal can’t legally be treated differently than any other commodity, despite it’s potential to change the global climate.

Washington Congressman Jim McDermott recently introduced a bill that would tax carbon – and therefore, coal exports. The revenue would go towards the national debt and towards helping communities - like those in his home state - deal with the impacts of increased train and ship traffic from moving coal.

It’ll be a tough bill to pass. For now, the opposing sides of the coal export debate in the Northwest are squaring off as the two largest proposed terminals begin the environmental review process this fall.

Copyright Northwest News Network 2012