When two Port of Bellingham commissioners joined forces to oust Charlie Sheldon from the executive director post in April 2012, many local community activists rallied to Sheldon’s side in an ultimately futile effort to get Scott Walker and Jim Jorgensen to change their minds and keep Sheldon on board.
Some of those folks might have been less enthusiastic about Sheldon if they had realized the extent of Sheldon’s own enthusiasm for coal trains, Washington state coal ports and coal itself.
Sheldon was not shy about those views in a May 20, 2012 letter he wrote to Seattle City Council (this was after Sheldon’s departure from Bellingham) to criticize their resolution opposing transportation of coal through the Emerald City, which passed May 29.
While Sheldon acknowledges the environmental and health problems related to coal, he suggests that solving those problems will require a major national technology initiative akin to the Apollo moon mission — not the blocking of coal trains. Meanwhile, he says, coal remains an essential source of regional, national and global energy. And he argues that the health risks from coal trains are wildly exaggerated.
“We don’t have time for elected leaders who choose to spend th eir time supporting various national environmental movements and who choose to repeat their talking points without any apparent due diligence whatever,” Sheldon’s letter concludes.
In this letter, and in a later telephone interview with me, Sheldon said he is convinced that the Ridley terminal in Prince Rupert, B.C. has a formidable expansion potential that could draw significant amounts of Powder River Basin coal through Seattle and Bellingham, no matter what happens at Cherry Point — where SSA Marine of Seattle has proposed the Gateway Pacific Terminal to handle coal and perhaps other bulk cargoes.
That is the idea that Communitywise Bellingham took great pains to try to refute in the report they issued last week.
Jack Delay, one of the authors of the Communitywise report, called my attention to this excerpt on Page 10, which contends that massive amounts of Ridley-bound coal are not likely to pass through western Washington:
“Although the RTI (Ridley terminal) appears destined to serve primarily Canadian markets into the future, it is also the only B. C. terminal that has the theoretical ability to expand its footprint and increase capacity. This would require a lengthy plan revision process, new environmental reviews and a major infusion of capital, but it is not impossible in the 10 to 20 year horizon. What are the implications in the distant future for trains heading from the PRB (Powder River Basin) to Ridley through Washington state?
“While it is impossible to predict if PRB interests would be successful in gaining any share of theoretical new RTI capacity, it is easy to predict that any trains delivering coal will not pass through Washington state. There is a much shorter, direct route through Sweetgrass, Montana. The route is a full 800 miles shorter than the 2,700 miles route through Washington. Not only is the route 30 percent shorter, it would also avoid increasing congestion at many locations on the longer route. Cloud Peak Energy has already reported reduced profit margins using the longer route to RTI through Washington and will not renew contracts for use of it. BNSF has been reluctant to invest in this route but recently entered an agreement with Canadian National and is eliminating some financial obstacles to its use. A recent cross-border freight study identified congestion from Blaine northward, particularly for traffic that must cross the Roberts Bank railroad corridor. This is a particularly intractable problem with major infrastructure costs that will likely require establishing new funding mechanisms in both Washington state and British Columbia.
“It should be noted that these same factors also increase the likelihood that the small number of Ridley destined coal trains now passing through Washington will also get rerouted through Montana over time.”