Digging for China: Coal is Northwest’s Next Big Climate Struggle

by Jason Mark

Few U.S. communities can match the eco credentials of the quaint college town of Bellingham, Washington. Nestled between the glacier-tipped peak of Mount Baker and the rugged coastline of the Puget Sound—the “Salish Sea,” as locals prefer to call it—the area is a magnet for hikers, climbers, and kayakers.

Strong Local Opposition to Coal Terminal

The town boasts a vibrant local-food scene, with two summer farmers markets and a pair of organic grocery stores. The City of Bellingham and the surrounding Whatcom County government get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, a practice that earned both recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Green Power Leadership program. The Natural Resources Defense Council has dubbed Bellingham one of its “Smarter Cities” for the town’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint.

So it’s no surprise that many Bellingham residents are against plans to make the area home to one of the country’s largest coal-export terminals. Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest non-state-owned coal-mining company, is working with developers to convert the Cherry Point piers—located just north of town on the U.S.-Canada border—into a port capable of exporting 50 million metric tons of coal a year. Locals of all stripes have come together to fight the proposal. “I’m exhilarated and exhausted by the number of people who are energized by this,” says Matt Krogh, a campaigner at the Bellingham community organization Re-Sources. “They are businessmen, they are environmentalists, they are fishermen and farmers and tribal members who are outraged by this clearly moronic idea.” The controversy has sparked protests and heated exchanges on the letters page of The Bellingham Herald. In March, 450 people (in a town of 80,000) turned out for a meeting organized by the Army Corps of Engineers to decide the scope of the environmental impact study for the potential port.

Bellingham is Not Alone

Similar battles are brewing across the Pacific Northwest. The Bellingham port is one of six terminals that coal-mining companies want to build in Washington and Oregon to boost sales to the industrial powerhouses of Asia. In Longview, Washington, Arch Coal and the Australian coal company Ambre Energy want to turn a former aluminum-smelting plant into a port that could ship 44 million metric tons of coal annually. Ambre is also behind a plan to move coal by barge down the Columbia River from the Port of Morrow to Port Westward, where the fuel would be loaded onto ships. The terminal at Port Westward would be able to transport some 30 million metric tons of coal a year. Other ports are being considered for Coos Bay in Oregon and Grays Harbor in Washington.

If all six plants were built, the U.S. would be exporting as much as 145 metric tons of coal a year to Asia. American coal companies like Peabody and Arch have pinned their hopes for the future on exports to Asia for a simple reason: Their domestic market is drying up. The Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions regulations for new power plants, a wave of grassroots activism against proposed coal-fired facilities, and a glut of natural-gas supplies have slashed the amount of coal U.S. utilities use. From March 2011 to March 2012, coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation plummeted from 42 percent to 34 percent; just six years ago, coal was responsible for almost half of U.S. electricity. In June, Arch Coal announced it would lay off about 750 workers in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky coalfields. West Virginia’s Alpha Resources also closed two of its mines in June. Kevin Parker, global head of asset management at Deutsche Bank, summed up the situation in an interview with The Washington Post last year: “Coal is a dead man walkin’.”

Coal Companies Won’t Leave It in the Ground

Yet the United States has one of the largest known reserves of coal — an estimated 235-year supply at current usage rates — and mining companies don’t want to leave the potential profits trapped underground. Sales abroad (currently Europe is the top recipient of U.S. coal, with Asia coming in a distant second) are on track to set an all-time record in 2012. Desperate for a lifeline, the zombie industry believes it can survive in the 21st century if it dramatically boosts exports, in part, by digging for China. “Coal will continue to be the cornerstone of the world’s energy supply,” says Beth Sutton, a vice president at Peabody Energy. “Coal has been the world’s fastest-growing fuel for the past decade, with coal use expanding 56 percent, speaking to the enormous appetite for energy from the world’s emerging economies. U.S. exports will build the balance of trade and create real economic stimulus through jobs and revenues.”

In June, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, a Republican, returned from a trip to China enthusiastic about the prospect of boosting exports. “As a continent, I think there are opportunities for Asia to accept imports of Wyoming coal,” he told the Associated Press. Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is the largest coalfield in the U.S. Currently, however, the only way to get that coal to Asia is to send it through Canadian ports or East Coast terminals — a trip that takes 48 days.

But to tap into the Asian coal market, the companies must overcome the opposition of communities in the reliably progressive, and awfully green, Pacific Northwest.

Environmental Fight of the Year

“Environmental groups see this as the most significant climate fight of the year, and maybe of the decade,” says Eric de Place, a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank. According to de Place, the carbon-dioxide emissions from the coal shipments would “dwarf the impacts of the Keystone pipeline,” the proposed tar-sands oil shipment route that became a galvanizing issue for green groups in the past year.

U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions have flatlined (thanks largely to the sharp drop in coal usage here), and environmental groups say that boosting coal shipments to Asia would wipe out that accomplishment. “Wherever the coal is burned, whether it is in China or the U.S., there are going to be carbon-dioxide emissions, emissions that we think should be avoided,” says David Pettit, an attorney in the Los Angeles offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Increasing the overall amount of coal in Asia, he says, would lead to a decrease in price, creating new incentives for building more coal-fired power plants there.

Many residents along the proposed coal routes are also worried about how the exports could affect their quality of life. (Full disclosure: My father-in-law lives in Bellingham.) Before the recession, up to 12 coal trains a day passed through Bellingham. If the port were built, an additional 18 trains would go through town daily — a 150 percent increase that would contribute to traffic congestion and noise and air pollution. Spokane, Washington, could see 50 coal trains a day rumbling through town. Critics also worry about the coal dust that would come with the train cars. As much as 3 percent of a coal car’s load—or 10 tons of coal on a 100-car train — can blow away in transit, contributing to water and air pollution. “We’ve been told that they put these surfactants agents on the coal cars, and that keeps the coal dust down,” says Tom Hutchinson, a member of the Longview City Council. “But no matter what you do, there’s going to be a lot of coal dust—more coal dust than we have now.”

Future is not Built on Coal

The debate over the ports has also tapped into anxieties about American economic competitiveness. For many in Oregon and Washington — states dominated by the high-tech industry and currently on track to phase out their two remaining coal plants — it doesn’t make sense to export a 19th-century fuel to fire the furnaces of economic contenders. “A lot of people are flummoxed by the idea that we are going to ship huge amounts of coal overseas,” de Place says. “Doing this may actually be pretty bad for our economy. If the future of the American economy looks good, it’s built on clean-energy sources. It’s not built on coal.”

For now, the fight centers on how federal agencies will measure the environmental impacts of the ports. More than 80 elected officials in Washington and Oregon — including U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, and many of the city council members of towns along the train routes — have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the cumulative effect of all six proposed ports. The EPA has also requested that the environmental impact studies take a regional view. “It’s not just Longview, it’s not just Boardman, [Oregon], it’s not just Bellingham,” says Councilman Hutchinson. “It affects the whole region. A single coal port is one thing. But when you have six, that’s entirely different.”

Divide and Conquer

The coal industry and its political allies are against any kind of overarching review of the ports. In June, 56 members of Congress (all Republicans, except for a handful of Democrats from coal-producing districts) sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior to express their opposition to a regional review, saying it would “institute a dangerous new precedent.” The proponents’ central argument centered on the jobs — estimates range from a couple of hundred to a thousand direct and indirect jobs—that would be created from building the ports. “There should be no misunderstanding: coal from the [Powder River Basin] will make its way to Asia — it is merely a matter of whether its transport and shipment will be a boon to Canada and Canadian workers, or to American [sic], and American workers.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide whether it will evaluate the ports individually or collectively by the end of the summer. No matter the decision, community activists are committed to keep fighting.

As Re-Sources’ Krogh says, “This is the sort of resistance where people will not give up.”  Φ

Jason Mark is the editor of the quarterly environmental magazine Earth Island Journal and a co-manager of San Francisco’s Alemany Farm. This article was originally published by The American Prospect.

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