A new plan for export of U.S. coal through a Canadian port is arousing some opposition north of the border.
According to reports in Canadian news media, Fraser Surrey Docks has proposed installation of coal-handling facilities that would allow them to unload one train per day of coal from Montana and Wyoming mines. The coal would be loaded onto barges and shipped to Texada Island, where it could be loaded on oceangoing vessels for export to Asia.
The train would get to Surrey via BNSF Railway Co.’s line that goes through Bellingham, Ferndale and Blaine.
By way of comparison, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project at Cherry Point in Whatcom County would handle as many as nine trainloads per day, with eight of those trains likely carrying coal.
According to the news reports, Fraser Surrey Docks has suffered a decline in business since the start of the economic slump, and its owners are hunting for new cargoes.
Here is the home page for Fraser Surrey Docks. Here is a page on the docks’ website giving links to all the facts and figures about what they are proposing.
Fraser Surrey Docks has scheduled community meetings on their plans for 5:30 p.m. today (Thursday, May 23) and 1 p.m. Saturday, May 25 at the Sheraton Hotel Guildford at 15269 104th Ave., Surrey.
The new state budget proposed by the Republican-controlled Washington State Senate would eliminate funding for the Department of Ecology’s Bellingham field office. Lummi Nation has sent a letter to Senate leaders protesting the possible closure of that office.
The letter, signed by Lummi Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson, says closure of the office “would have substantial negative impacts on the environment in Whatcom County.”
Jefferson’s letter states that the local office plays a vital role in many environmental issues that are vital to the tribe. Among those is the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project proposed for Whatcom County’s Cherry Point.
“This proposed project will have regional impacts — removing an office of one of the regulatory agencies from the location most affected by the proposed projects sends a message to the affected parties,” Jefferson’s letter states.
The Ecology field office also plays an important role in dealing with tribal concerns about water quality, water rights and crude oil spills, Jefferson’s letter states.
Department of Ecology officials have warned that even if the office in Fairhaven is shut down, they have a lease that runs to 2017 that would require them to pay another $1.2 million between now and then even if they move out. Ecology also estimates moving expenses of $100,000, and monthly travel costs to this area from Bellevue headquarters that would exceed the current cost of operating the office.
I’ll be working on this story today, contacting local legislators for their views. I’ve also asked Mayor Kelli Linville and the Port of Bellingham’s Mike Stoner to weigh in.
Chinese demand for Powder River Basin coal has been the motivator for the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal and other Northwest coal export plans, but recent reports indicate that Chinese demand may be waning.
Here’s one such report from Platts. It is especially interesting because the report is based on analysis from Goldman Sachs, the financial firm that owns a big share of Carrix, parent firm of SSA Marine of Seattle, which hopes to build Gateway Pacific at Whatcom County’s Cherry Point.
(Hat tip to Terry Wechsler for calling attention to this one via Facebook)
Reports about declining Chinese coal demand have been widely circulated in recent days among Gateway Pacific opponents. Is SSA Marine ignorant of these reports? I doubt it. Are they too stubborn to admit there is no economic rationale for their project? I doubt that too.
Even if the regulatory approval process goes smoothly for Gateway Pacific — and there is not much evidence that it will –it would be years before the terminal could ship its first lump of coal.
I don’t pretend to know much, but I do know this: Nobody knows much about the market for any commodity four or five years from now. Experts can study data and make projections and estimates, but those estimates could be way off.
A few years ago I attended an energy issues seminar for journalists, in Washington D.C. The Department of Energy’s analysts assured us that the price of crude oil, then in the midst of a worrisome spike, would recede and stabilize at around $55 for several years. This was the expert consensus. It turned out to be laughably wrong.
Carrix and BNSF Railway Co. are big outfits with plenty of money. They have no problem spending millions on a multi-year permit process in the hope of having permits in hand when and if there is a market opportunity for coal, or something else, in four to six years. If they do get their permits (and I’m not saying they will) they won’t build the thing if there is no market for it to serve.
Here’s a local example: In the wake of the 2000-2001 West Coast electric power crisis, BP Cherry Point announced plans for a 720-megawatt natural gas-fired generating plant to provide a secure power source for the refinery and a sizeable amount of surplus power that could be sold in a then-lucrative wholesale market. The price tag was announced at $500 million–in the same league as Gateway Pacific.
After three and a half years of regulatory scrutiny, the plant got final approval in late 2004. The start of contruction was postponed. The projected size of the plant was scaled back a bit. Then BP dropped the plans completely. Market conditions had changed.
During the same time period when the BP power plant was in the works, there was a lot of talk about building terminals to import natural gas. At that same energy conference in DC, the experts earnestly assured us that LNG importing was going to be the next big thing. We even got a tour of an existing import terminal in Maryland. They poured some LNG into a thing like a garbage can lid and set it on fire to show us it would not blow up. (We all knew that under the right conditions, it WOULD blow up, and HAD blown up, but we let the corporate communications folks have their fun.)
Today, energy and shipping companies are busy prospecting for places to build LNG export facilities.
The market changed.
Meanwhile, coal giant Peabody Energy predicts the market for coal will improve as natural gas prices rise.
CSX railroad expects domestic coal shipments to stabilize at a lower level soon, because all the power companies that could switch to cheaper natural gas have pretty much done so.
The regulatory agencies joining forces on the environmental study of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier have issued a report summarizing the comments received on the scope of that study.
UPDATE: The comments from federal and state agencies may be of special interest. With few exceptions, those agencies join environmentalists in calling for a sweeping scope of study for this terminal. Those comments begin on p. 81.
The Washington Department of Commerce is the only such agency aligning itself firmly with Gateway Pacific’s backers on climate change issues. The Commerce comment letter asks that regulatory agencies not establish “new precedents under state law that would unduly burden a wide variety of future projects,” and not allow this and other projects “to serve as proxies for bigger debates such as how best to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels.”
Commerce also wants the environmental impact statement to do a thorough job of adding up the economic benefits from the project.
But Commerce also calls for a wide-ranging review of possible negative impacts on property values near the rails, the economic impact of rail crossing delays “for the Puget Sound region and beyond.”
Commerce also suggests that public costs to improve those rail crossings should be subtracted from additions to public revenue.
Commerce’s Jan. 22, 2013 letter is signed by Rogers Weed, the executive director appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire. Brian Bonlender, Gov. Inslee’s former chief of staff in Congress was appointed by Inslee to replace Weed. Bonlender took over Commerce’s top post on Feb. 1.
The Washington Department of Agriculture, whose leaders had expressed some enthusiasm for Gateway Pacific as a possible export outlet for wheat, expresses misgivings in a comment letter. Agriculture’s letter calls for an analysis of the project’s impacts on rail traffic throughout the state, especially as increased demands on rail capacity might affect the availability of rail for crops that are already reliant on access to a share of that capacity.
Agriculture officials also want study of possible disruption of rail links to existing agricultural ports, and how changes in air and water quality could affect agriculture.
The document made public April 1, 2013 is a summary of comments, not the key decision on what the scope of the environmental impact statement for Gateway Pacific will be. The summary says that decision will be made “in the near future.” I have asked for (but will not necessarily get) some specific information on what “near” means in this context.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County Planning Department are pooling their resources to develop a single environmental impact statement to analyze how SSA Marine’s proposed Cherry Point terminal will affect the environment, and what steps would need to be taken to compensate for (mitigate) any negative effects.
Opponents of the terminal have argued that the environmental impact statement must study global and regional impacts, not just local ones. Global impacts would include climate change and its associated ills (rising sea level, ocean acidification) from the burning of exported coal in China. Gov. Jay Inslee recently joined Oregon Gov. Jon Kitzhaber in calling for such a review by the federal government.
Regional impacts would include the possible disruptions from increased rail traffic from Cherry Point to the mines in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana. The terminal would attract an estimated nine loaded trains per day–trains that would pass through Bellingham and Ferndale on their way to Cherry Point. They would return empty along the same route.
During recent hearings on Bellingham waterfront development, many commenters expressed fears that waterfront revitalization efforts would be hamstrung by the railroad tracks that slice through the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill site.
But the business interests and labor unions backing Gateway Pacific have argued that an environmental impact statement that is too broad and comprehensive would be unfair, setting a precedent that could harm other proposals. They characterize a review of global impacts as “bureaucracy.”
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that trainloads of coal are already passing through Whatcom County on the way to export terminals in Canada. Environmental groups are now reporting that coal is falling off these trains into the water elsewhere along their route.
In this report from KOMO, divers for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance say they are finding coal in the water along the rail route at Seattle’s Ballard Locks.
In this report from KGW in Portland, Columbia Riverkeeper reports similar findings in and around the Columbia Gorge.
In my occasional walks along the South Bay Trail to Boulevard Park, I have been checking for traces of coal as I cross the BNSF Railway Co. tracks. So far I haven’t noticed anything.
I have recently heard reports of coal being found around the tracks along the north end of the bay, where the prevailing southerly winds would blow across the cars.
Until the 1950s, Bellingham had its very own coal mine. I suppose it is possible that coal spilled from that era is still visible in places along the tracks. I don’t pretend to know.
If you have found any, feel free to post a comment or drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The environmentalists, who are giving the fight against Gateway Pacific Terminal and other projects their maximum effort, are warning that the coal problems can be expected to get worse if GPT and other proposed northwest coal ports are allowed.
Backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project and other proposed Northwest coal export facilities have been quick to react after the governors of Washington and Oregon asked federal regulators to consider greenhouse gas emissions and other global impacts as those projects get review.
The governors, Jay Inslee of Washington and Jon Kitzhaber of Oregon, sent this letter to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality Thursday, March 25, asking that council to give broad scrutiny to the projects.
“We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf those of almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” the governors’ letter states.
But business, union and agriculture leaders making up the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports have expressed opposition to the governors’ stance. They argue that the “expanded regulation” the governors want would set a precedent that would affect other projects and cause economic harm.
The argument seems to be that the economic benefits of exporting U.S. coal as a cheap power source for China and other Asian countries outweigh any potential negative impacts to global climate or human health. If that is the argument, why not subject that argument to both economic and environmental scrutiny before permits are granted?
Some coal export backers (such as Brian Schweitzer, former Montana governor) have argued that the Northwest terminals won’t have any measurable impact on coal burning in China: Denied U.S. coal, the Chinese will get and burn the same amount of coal from other sources. ( Read Schweitzer’s arguments here.)
If that argument has merit, advocates of coal exports should be able to offer evidence for it during the environmental impact statement process — if these broader questions are included in the scope of that process.
That is why the upcoming decisions on scope-of-study are crucial. Will local, state and federal regulators take on these global questions, as Inslee and Kitzhaber and thousands of local residents prefer? Or will they decide that the law requires them to stick closer to Whatcom County and its environs, focusing on Cherry Point eelgrass beds, ship and rail traffic, etc.? We shall see.
Here is the full text of the rebuttal to Inslee and Kitzhaber from the Alliance For Northwest Jobs and Exports:
SEATTLE, Wash. – Labor and business leaders responded forcefully to the call from Governors of Oregon and Washington for expanded federal review in the approval of coal export projects in the Northwest. They reiterated strong support for the proposed bulk export terminals and expressed concern over the precedent that expanded regulation would have on future exports from the Northwest.
The governors wrote a joint letter to the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) urging that it undertake a thorough review of greenhouse gas emissions and other air quality impacts prior to any final decisions on coal export projects. Three proposed projects are currently undergoing rigorous government environmental impact assessments in the Northwest. If approved, these port projects would expand trade and exports to Asia and the rest of the world, contributing to the regional economy in addition to creating thousands of good family-wage jobs at these facilities.
“Just last week the U.S. Senate voted to oppose any new requirement or regulation that federal agencies account for greenhouse gas emissions in their analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Such a requirement could be particularly damaging to the Northwest, where trade and exports are so vital to the local economy,” said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the trade advocacy group the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, which represents nearly 400,000 workers and 46,000 businesses.
“We have always been and remain committed to making these projects a reality,” said Mike Elliott, Spokesman for the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). “We will continue working with the Oregon and Washington Governors towards the best outcome for these multi-commodity facilities.”
“This is déjà vu all over again,” said John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau. “We saw this kind of intervention when the CEQ stepped in 20 years ago on the issue of federal timber harvests in the Northwest. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. Tying GHG emissions to export projects is a bad idea and an ineffective policy for addressing the Governor’s climate policy objectives. It sets a precedent that could be used to slow or stop exports of agriculture and other bulk commodities – hurting our trade economy.”
“Existing federal law requires exhaustive environmental review of development projects to ensure that our environment is protected,” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. “In addition, Washington has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the nation and every project must meet or exceed those standards in order to go forward. Imposing additional, unwarranted and unnecessary regulatory burdens in an attempt to derail a particular project would set a dangerous precedent that will jeopardize our state’s economic future,” Brunell added. “We continue to support a balanced approach that ensures both environmental protection and economic opportunity.”
“Virtually every product we export, from cars to turbines to planes to grains, has an environmental impact,” said Ross Eisenberg , vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. “The already-too-long permitting process for new projects–a process that takes on average 3.4 years–would become completely unmanageable if the law were expanded to require the type of review the two governors are now seeking.”
Trade and exports have played a central role in the Washington and Oregon economies for decades. One in four jobs in the region is tied to the trade industry, which annually produces hundreds of millions in tax revenues. Economic studies show the private investment proposed for five new bulk export terminals would create thousands of new jobs and generate millions in additional tax revenue for schools and other services in Washington and Oregon.
“We disagree with this approach and believe current regulations ensure rigorous environmental review of each individual project. We will continue our efforts to make the case to Governors Inslee and Kitzhaber, as well as others, that these terminal projects are good for our region and can be done right,” said Hennessey.
(End press release)
By John Stark
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has joined Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in calling for a broad environmental review of global impacts of coal export terminals proposed for Whatcom County and elsewhere, but he has stopped short of outright opposition to those terminals.
Inslee and Kitzhaber used strong language in a letter to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality:
“We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf those of almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” their letter said in part. “For these reasons, we urge the CEQ in the strongest possible terms to undertake and complete a thorough examination of the greenhouse gas and other air quality effects of continued coal leasing and export before the U.S. and its partners make irretrievable long-term investments in expanding this trade.”
The letter to the federal council was released Monday, March 25. At the same time, Inslee also released a letter to Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, stressing that no decision has been made on coal terminal projects, and the Department of Ecology should continue its assessment of their environmental impacts as the law requires.
That letter has received less attention.
Key excerpt in Inslee’s letter to Bellon: “I emphasize in the letter (to the federal environmental council) that no final decisions have been made on the applications for state permits for the proposed coal export facilities that would be located in our state. Washington state must remain committed to a rigorous, fair and objective process to review these applications, within the scope of our laws. I know you share this commitment and will execute your regulatory role accordingly.”
By John Stark
Backers of SB 5805 insist that the measure has nothing to do with the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier prop0sed for Whatcom County’s Cherry Point, but State Sen. Kevin Ranker is convinced otherwise.
Ranker, D-40th, says the backers are telling the truth when they say it had its origins in a desire to jump-start a long-stalled gravel-shipping pier project in Jefferson County. But that doesn’t change the fact that the bill’s language could also be applied to Gateway Pacific, Ranker said. He also suspects that many of the senators and lobbyists supporting the bill are well aware of that fact.
“This bill would remove Whatcom County from the decision-making process” on Gateway Pacific, Ranker said Thursday, Feb. 28. On Friday, Ranker filed several amendments meant to remove its potential impact on the coal terminal.
The bill, bill summary, bill digest and proposed amendments can all be viewed here.
State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-32nd, and State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-23rd, joined in that effort.
Among other things, the amendments would make sure that local governments must consent to an expedited permit process for a project deemed to be of special economic significance. Ranker’s amendments take the further step of stripping the bill of language that would make “transportation” and “basic commodity transportation” projects eligible for express-lane service in the regulatory process.
Here is an earlier blog post in which backers of the bill downplay its significance for Gateway Pacific, while stopping short of an outright denial that it could affect that project.
Ranker said he thinks it likely that the Republican-controlled (sorta, kinda controlled) Senate will pass SB 5805, but it won’t get through the House, and even if it does, it won’t get past the veto pen of Gov. Jay Inslee.
The Senate may vote on the bill today–Friday March 1.
UPDATE: Ranker’s legislative assistant, Kendall Farley, said the bill and the proposed amendments may come before the full Senate next week.
UPDATE NUMERO DOS: Gateway Pacific spokesman Craig Cole said he checked with SSA’s lobbyist in Olympia and was told that the company is not playing a role in pushing for the bill’s passage.
“It’s not our deal,” Cole said.
Asked if the bill could benefit Gateway Pacific if passed, Cole said he had no idea.
By John Stark
A new report from Greenpeace argues that recent Chinese demand for imported coal may be a short-term phenomenon, and coal and shipping companies may be making an expensive mistake if they invest in export facilities that may not be needed.
The Greenpeace report is full of charts and graphs that make a serious case for the view that even China is beginning to turn away from coal-fired power, for all the usual reasons: environmental woes and public outrage over pollution, and increased Chinese investment in alternative fuels.
Of course, the coal industry and SSA Marine, the Gateway Pacific proponent, have a different view of the future. Is there any chance that coal guys and shipping guys have a better read on coal export market potential than Greenpeace guys?
Maybe. It also seems to me that there are enough unknowns in this situation to make it impossible for anyone to know for sure how much US coal the Chinese may want when and if Gateway Pacific is up and running in four? five? six? years. All the data is in the past. It doesn’t predict the future.
Not so many years ago, BP went through a long and costly process to obtain permits to build a big natural gas-fired power plant next to the Cherry Point refinery. By the time that the process was complete, market conditions had changed and BP elected not to build the power plant.
By John Stark
A Washington State Senate bill calling for expedited processing of permits for–among other things–”basic commodity transportation” is getting a lot of attention from opponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier proposed for Cherry Point.
The bill, SB 5805, was introduced Feb. 15, 2013 and passed along to the Rules Committee after a perfunctory Feb. 21 hearing in the Trade and Economic Committee. The bill comes up at 30:24 in the TVW video. Committee members make passing reference to coal projects and constituent concerns about it, but there is no definitive discussion of whether the bill would have any impact on those projects.
The bill modifies language in existing law for expediting the permit process in ways that would seem to apply to Gateway Pacific–especially the insertion of new language that would make “basic commodity transportation” facilities eligible for the fast-track.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-44th, is a co-sponsor of 5805. Hobbs told me that 5805 has been introduced in previous sessions as part of an effort to get approval for a “pit to pier” gravel shipping terminal in Jefferson County that has beern simmering for many years. Here is some info on that project on the Jefferson County website; here is a critical view of it from a citizens’ organization, the Hood Canal Coalition. (Nobody mentioned this project during the committee hearing, unless I missed it.)
“Coal was not in mind when this bill was drafted,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs endorsed the Gateway Pacific proposal before his 2012 race for a 1st District House seat, in which he garnered 7 percent of the vote in the primary. He said he didn’t think SB 5805 would have any effect on Gateway Pacific.
Josh Swanson, a lobbyist for the International Union of Operating Engineers, also supports both 5805 and Gateway Pacific. Like Hobbs, he said the two are not related; 5805 is about gravel shipments in Jefferson County, and backers of the Jefferson County project have been trying to get this legislation passed for many years.
Swanson said he wasn’t sure if 5805 could also benefit Gateway Pacific if it becomes law, and he understands why Gateway Pacific opponents are worried that it might.
“I certainly think the argument could be made,” Swanson said. “I understand that.”
Meanwhile, Gateway Pacific opponents are sounding the alarm on Facebook, urging people to contact legislators to voice their opposition to 5805.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, responded with a Facebook post of his own:
“Thanks to each of you who have written to me here on FB and through my office regarding Senate Bill 5805 that could allow permit streamlining of large scale projects such as the Coal Export Facility at Cherry Point or the Pit to Pier project.
“Know that I am strongly opposed to the bill and am helping lead the opposition here in the Senate. Make no mistake… This is a bad bill and each of us needs to do anything in our power to make sure that it never gets to the Governor’s desk.
“I will continue to work tirelessly to oppose this bill.”
I have contacted Ranker seeking additional comment.
UPDATE: Mike Ennis, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, also said that Gateway Pacific was not on the minds of those who drafted 5805, and he scoffed at the notion that it might benefit the coal terminal.
“I think it’s just scare tactics by the enviros,” Ennis said.
But when he was asked if Gateway Pacific could benefit from the bill if it becomes law, Ennis stopped short of a flat denial.
“I don’t think they could, but that’s as far as I’ll go,” Ennis said.
The Association of Washington Business is also on record in support of Gateway Pacific.
By John Stark
Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who recently stepped down after two terms as Montana governor, scoffs at the idea that Northwest coal export terminals will be a boon to coal production in his state.
“I think Cherry Point is dead,” Schweitzer said in one portion of a lengthy interview with SNL, an online energy news service.
(Cloud Peak Energy of Gillette, Wyo. apparently thinks otherwise. The company has just completed an agreement to ship up to 16 million tons of coal a year out of SSA Marine’s proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, when and if it is built. Communitywise Bellingham provides the full text of the announcement via BusinessWire, and notes that this and an earlier deal with Peabody Coal is evidence that Gateway Pacific could operate at or near maximum capacity if it can run the regulatory obstacle course and begin operations.)
But here’s more from Schweitzer, who is an enthusiastic booster of his state’s coal industry:
“Ten years from now, maybe there will be some export capacity on the West Coast, but for right now, what we have is completely full and what has been proposed is probably dead — and not even dead in the water, just dead,” Schweitzer told SNL.
During a phone interview with me on Wednesday, Feb. 13, Schweitzer said he bases those sweeping statements on the level of public opposition to the coal export proposals at Cherry Point and elsewhere.
“There’s so much resistance to the project in the community,” Schweitzer said. “Unless that local resistance changes, coal is not going to be shipped at Cherry Point.”
One symptom of that was the unprecedented avalanche of 120,000 public comments during the preliminary “scoping” phase of the environmental impact study process, although that figure includes some comments supportive of the project.
SSA Marine spokesmen have cited their in-house polling data indicating a majority of people in the state and Whatcom County are supportive of the project for its jobs and tax revenue, but opponents contend those results lack credibility.
While Schweitzer believes that the environmental opponents of the project are going to get their way, he thinks their opposition is misguided.
Schweitzer says he accepts the science of climate change caused by fossil-fuel burning, and he said he shares environmentalists’ concerns about it. He also said he has personally observed climate change’s effect on Montana’s glaciers and forests.
But as he sees it, the availability of U.S. coal will not affect how much coal is actually burned in China and other Asian countries.
“Those coal-fired plants have been built in Asia,” Schweitzer said. “They will run for 30 to 50 years until they are obsolete, or wear out. For 30 to 50 years it is already baked in … It’s nice that y9u care about climate change but it’s not going to change how much carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.”
Some of the coal that will be burned in place of Montana coal will have a higher mercury content and a lower heat content per ton of carbon dioxide, he said.
He mocked environmentalists who, in his view, have an absurd expectation about how Asian nations will react to the defeat of Gateway Pacific.
“If we can’t get this coal from Montana, we’re going to just blow up this coal plant, live in a cave and eat nuts,” Schweitzer said.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 13, Sightline Institute released a study challenging the financial credibility of Australian-based Ambre Energy, the company promoting coal export terminals on the Columbia River. The study contends that Ambre doesn’t have the financial resources to pull off these ambitious projects.
In this report in the Longview Daily News, Ambre Energy officials rejected the Sightline report’s conclusions.
By John Stark
Coal use in Asia will rise rapidly in the years ahead, even if the Chinese economy slumps and western governments succeed in enacting carbon tax measures, the International Energy Agency says in a new report.
Writing in his Dot Earth blog in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin sums things up bluntly:
“Anyone making the case that some magical application of a carbon price, in the United States or elsewhere, can ride to the rescue of the climate system is missing the primacy of real-time energy needs over long-term climate concerns,” Revkin writes.
Revkin is no climate-change denier. He goes on to suggest steps that could be taken to minimize the damage to the environment. But those steps are likely to be unpopular in some circles. As he sees it, attention should be focused on making coal-burning as efficient as possible, so that developing economies get the maximum amount of electric power for every ton of coal they burn.
Richard K. Morse, director of research on coal an d carbon markets at Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, made the same exact point in an article in Foreign Affairs last August.
The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t link it all for you, but here is a key excerpt:
“Given how dominant coal is, one of the most promising ways to fight global warming is to make it emit less carbon dioxide, a solution that is less elusive than commonly thought. Merely installing the best available technologies in coal plants in the developing world could slash the volume of carbon dioxide released by billions of tons per year, doing more to reduce emissions on an annual basis than all the world’s wind, solar and geothermal power combined do today.”
Many months ago, I discussed Morse’s article with Eric dePlace of Sightline Institute, who has focused on environmental issues surrounding SSA Marine’s proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export facility at Cherry Point.
“I agree with part of it,” dePlace said.
It is important to talk about ways to help the developing world produce energy more efficiently, and that could mean more efficient use of coal in the near-term. Coal-burning isn’t going to stop in the next 10 years, dePlace agrees.
But he is wary of energy policies that would lock Asian economies into long-term reliance on coal.
“Even the most efficient coal plant is not very efficient,” dePlace said, adding that money invested in retrofitting older, dirtier coal plants would be better-spent elsewhere.
“Getting a 40 percent reduction in coal emissions is not nearly adequate to the task,” dePlace said. “We need, as a world, to transition off coal in the next few decades … I’m far from convinced that investing in and thereby extending the life of existing coal plants would be the smartest thing to do with investors’ money.”
In his Foreign Affairs article, Morse says alternative forms of energy are much-preferred — and the Chinese are moving actively to develop them — but in some places, no alternatives are available.
“Critics may argue that financing any kind of coal is bad environmental policy,” Morse writes. “The calculus, however, is more complicated, and it depends on counterfactuals. In places where financing coal power would crowd out cleaner sources of energy, development banks should refrain from doing so. But much of the developing world, constrained by tight budgets and limited alternatives for large-scale power generation, faces a choice not between coal and renewable energy but between inefficient coal plants and efficient ones … Indulging in quixotic visions of a coal-free world is an incoherent and inadequate response to the problem of global warming.”
Does any of this have any bearing on the debate over Gateway Pacific? That is likely one of the issues that regulatory agencies will have to grapple with soon, as they make key decisions on the scope of the environmental impact statement.
For opponents of Gateway Pacific, it’s a no-brainer: Burning coal contributes to climate change, and Gateway Pacific would contribute to burning coal. Therefore, that issue must be a part of the environmental impact statement process, and in the likely event that there is no way to mitigate for the damage caused by burning the coal, the project should be denied.
But the IEA report and the arguments from people like Morse and Revkin raise some doubts. If China and India can’t get Powder River Basin coal from West Coast ports, will they burn less coal? Is there any way to get a solid answer to that question?
And if the answer is, “No, they will not burn any less coal,” does it follow that cashing in on the inevitable is good public policy for the county, the state and the region? Does it mean that the scope of the environmental impact statement and the required mitigation should be limited to more localized concerns, such as railroad impacts?
Eric dePlace recently produced this report on the PR firms involved in promoting Gateway Pacific. (The Seattle P-I-s Joel Connelly reports here on dePlace’s report, and gets reaction comments from some of the PR people involved.) Read a collection of dePlace’s reports on coal exports here.
By John Stark
On Crosscut, retired Western Washington University journalism professor Floyd McKay provides an excellent summary of the Gateway Pacific Terminal scoping meetings, and a look ahead at what might happen next.
Among other things, McKay suggests that the county, Ecology and Army Corps of Engineers staffers who are reviewing the scoping testimony will likely refer key decisions to their bosses, and governor-elect Jay Inslee may be in the loop.
By John Stark
The Friday, Dec. 7 accident at the Westshore Terminal coal pier in British Columbia got just a short mention in Saturday’s newspaper and the Friday online edition. I’m sure many of you wanted more.
Here’s an update from The Maritime Executive, noting that one of the berths at the terminal, just north of the U.S. border, remains out of commission as of Monday, Dec. 10. The report says there is still no explanation for the accident, in which a coal ship apparently crashed through the conveyer belt that carries coal to the loading equipment and spilled about 30 tons of coal into the sea.
Here’s a report and aerial photo from Metro Vancouver. This report indicates that the collision and spill have stirred up some serious misgivings about plans to expand the terminal.
Here’s a lengthy report about opposition to coal exports in British Columbia. It appeared in the Maple Ridge News before last week’s mishap.
Expansion of the Canadian coal terminal could be significant to Bellingham and Whatcom County, since U.S. coal exported through Westshore would likely use BNSF Railway Co. tracks through western Washington and Bellingham to get there — as some coal trains are already doing. This report also details plans to expand coal export capacity in Canada, and it appears as though those plans were not slated for extensive regulatory review at the time this report was written.
Some proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project proposed for Whatcom County’s Cherry Point have argued that if a local terminal is not built, the coal will still be shipped through Bellingham en route to potentially-expandable Canadian terminals and Chinese steam plants.
But opponents contend that the potential increase in coal train traffic through Bellingham to Canada is nowhere near the 18 trains per day (loaded and empty) that would be generated by Gateway Pacific at full capacity.
Here’s a link to the Communitywise Bellingham report on that issue.
In any event, Westshore also handles Canadian coal that gets to the terminal via Canadian rail lines. Here’s one example–the coal sources in this deal appear to be Canadian. (report from NASDAQ)
By John Stark
After the uproar over the use or misuse of the public comment period at the Nov. 29 environmental impact statement scoping meeting in Ferndale, as well as at the Dec. 4 meeting in Spokane, the regulatory agencies have announced a different approach.
This week, at the Wed. Dec. 12 meeting in Vancouver, Wash. and the Thursday, Dec. 13 meeting in Seattle, a lottery system will be in place to decide who gets one of the limited number of two-minute speaking opportunities before a live microphone. No need to show up hours early to get a chance.
Read the details here in a joint press release from Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Details on the meetings themselves:
Vancouver: Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012; 4 to 7 p.m.; Clark College, Gaiser Student Center, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way; meeting room capacity is 800.
Seattle: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012; 4 to 7 p.m.; Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place, Ballroom 6F. Capacity is 3,500.
In an email last week, Whatcom County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder reiterated that the three agencies aren’t giving any extra credit for comments spoken into a microphone. Mailed and emailed comments get the same consideration:
“Yes, the agencies will be giving the the same significance to oral
comments as written comments. All comments, regardless of how
submitted, are transcribed and posted on the website for review. There
are many avenues for people to submit comments and thousands of people
are commenting on line, either via the website, or by email: http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/comment . We will be reviewing all comments received during the 120-day comment period.”
The comment period ends Jan. 21, 2012.