An official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told a congressional subcommittee that her agency will not be conducting the sweeping environmental review of Northwest coal ports that environmental groups have been demanding.
UPDATE: Larry Altose, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology, said the state MAY still commission studies of climate change and rail traffic impact under the State Environmental Policy Act, even if the Corps says it is not required to do so under federal law.
An excerpt from an email sent to us by Altose:
“Under SEPA it is possible to address ‘direct, indirect and cumulative impacts’ of a project, and that can include global warming and rail impacts. This can apply even if the impacts could occur outside local jurisdictional boundaries,” Altose writes.
Altose said the state, the Corps and Whatcom County expect to issue their final determination of the Environmental Impact Statement scope within a few weeks, but they have not set themselves a deadline.
The Army Corps’ Jennifer Moyer set off a bit of a storm when she testified Tuesday, June 18 before a Congressional subcommittee.
Moyer, acting chief of regulatory reform for the corps, told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power that rail traffic and climate change are beyond the scope of her agency’s authority.
Among other things, Morrow said:
“Many of the activities of concern to the public, such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. territory, and the ultimate burning of coal overseas, are outside the Corps’ control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects. We note that coal mining in the Powder River Basin has been occurring for many years, with that coal being shipped by rail to many different destinations. The potential change in rail traffic patterns is beyond the control and expertise of the Corps, and requires no involvement from the Corps.”
Environmental groups were quick to criticize that position, and they renewed calls for Washington state and Whatcom County officials to conduct a more sweeping review of coal shipment health impacts and climate change.
Here’s an excerpt from a press release from the Power Past Coal coalition:
““We recently called on the Army Corps to stop sitting on their hands and move forward with an area-wide review, and they responded with willingly putting their blinders on,” said Cesia Kearns, Senior Campaign Representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and Acting Director for Power Past Coal coalition of which Sierra Club is a member. “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. 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.”
The Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export facility proposed for Whatcom County’s Cherry Point would need as many as nine trainloads per day, all of which would pass through Bellingham and Ferndale on their way to the pier.
The U.S. Office of the Inspector General has issued a report indicating that the U.S. government may not be charging enough for the leases it offers to coal companies mining federal lands.
Meanwhile, closer to home:
Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place is an outspoken critic of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, where SSA Marine of Seattle hopes to export coal to Asia. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen announced his support of that project in the early days, before opposition to it reached its present decibel level. De Place recently took on Larsen in a blog post, making fun of a letter that Larsen sent to a constituent asserting that train traffic to the Cherry Point site could vary between two and 18 trains per day if you count both loaded trains inbound and empty ones headed back to the mines. (Stalwart politics blog commenter Terry Wechsler alerted us to this one.)
Here is Larsen’s response to de Place, provided by Larsen aide Bryan Thomas:
“Congressman Larsen’s constituent letter reflects the fact that at peak capacity, the proposed terminal would handle 9 trains per day. Therefore the maximum number of additional trains would be 18 (9 inbound and 9 outbound). It could be fewer than 18 trains when the terminal is operating at below maximum capacity.”
I’m not sure I understand why this is a big deal. We know that the terminal is planned for a size that could handle coal and perhaps other stuff at a nine-train-per-day capacity. Will it get exactly nine trains every day? Hardly anything in this world operates at full capacity every day. If you have a facility that IS operating at full capacity, you usually try to make it bigger. But I think de Place has a good point when he notes that if the average will be 18 trains per day, the actual train traffic on a given day could be significantly more than that, if they have a few slow days for some reason and need to replenish their stockpiles.
(Example: The Westshore Terminal in B.C. had some slow days in early 2013, after a coal ship had a parallel parking problem of some kind and knocked out one of the loading docks in December 2012. That facility got back in business in February, according to this report in Mining Connection.)
The coal export debate continues to attract intense media interest. Here’s the latest:
This could be one of the coolest things on the Internet: Time-lapse satellite photos that let you create an animated look at the impacts of human activity from 1984 to 2012 on any corner of the globe, and that includes Whatcom County and Bellingham.
In our corner of the world, one of the most striking visual phenomena, to me, is the amount of logging on nearby slopes during those years. The good news is that reforestation is also visible: timber lands go from green to brown to green again.
The suburbanization of the Lake Whatcom watershed is also striking, helping to dramatize why the lake’s water quality has been slowly deteriorating.
Following up on an earlier threat, a coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle, accusing BNSF Railway Co. and several coal companies of violating the Clean Water Act.
The lawsuit contends that coal is escaping into streams and marine waters from every coal train that passes: “Defendants have discharged, are discharging, and will continue to discharge coal pollutants into waters of the U.S. by each and every one of the defendants’ trains and rail cars that carry coal,” the lawsuit states.
At a Wednesday, June 5 press conference, spokesmen for the plaintiffs made it clear that the lawsuit is part of the ongoing campaign to stop plans for coal export terminals, one of which is the Gateway Pacific Terminal that SSA Marine wants to build at Whatcom County’s Cherry Point.
“We have a problem right now that is quite severe,” said Michael Lang of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “It will be made levels of magnitude worse” if new coal terminals attract more trainloads of coal to be shipped from Wyoming and Montana mines to Northwest ports.
Charles Tebbutt, the attorney who filed the case, said no discharges are allowed into water bodies without federal permits, and neither the railroad nor the coal companies have permits to cover their discharge of coal from passing trains. Tebbutt said the Clean Water Act provides penalties of $37,500 a day for violations.
Tebbutt also said it doesn’t matter whether the coal is dangerous to the environment. As he explained it, the Clean Water Act prohibits discharge of any substance into the water without a federal permit.
Tebbutt said the railroad and the coal companies need to take steps to eliminate their discharges if they want to get coal trains into compliance with federal law.
“There are very simple ways to fix the problem,” Tebbutt said.
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said the lawsuit’s allegations are untrue.
“Sierra Club’s lawsuit is meritless and nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of multi-commodity export terminals in the Pacific Northwest,” Lunsberg said in an email. “The Sierra Club adamantly opposes coal and will go to any lengths to eliminate it, even at the expense of all other Washington exports.
“BNSF has safely hauled coal in Washington for decades, and is committed to preventing coal dust from escaping while in transit. In compliance with BNSF rules, exporters have committed to treat all coal shipments with methods effective at preventing coal dust from escaping during transit,” Lundsberg’s email said.
We’ll have a complete report later today, and in the Thursday, June 6 print edition.
Making the rounds late this weekend, and still today, is a quick hit on our county’s proposed coal terminal and its bearing on this year’s county council elections.
“The Obscure County Election That Could Change the Planet,” the National Journal’s headline declares, with the sort of hyperbole you can get away with only if the large majority of your readers aren’t from that obscure place.
I suggest you read the story, if you haven’t already, but three points cry out to be made in response, which might knock down the overreaching headline a peg or two.
No one would challenge the assertion that the upcoming county council elections, with two incumbents who lean conservative and two who lean progressive on the ballot, aren’t significant for a host of issues, including possibly the coal terminal. If the coal approval process gets this far, then the county council will eventually decide on two permits — a major development permit and a shoreline substantial development permit. As I read the county code, the council will consider the latter permit only if one of the parties appeals the hearing examiner’s ruling. It sounds reasonable to assume the council will be called upon to make a decision with this much import (or is that export?).
But I wouldn’t go so far as to assume the 2013 ballot will hold the ultimate elections before those decisions. I could foresee those council votes happening in 2016, which would mean the elections for the seats now held by Pete Kremen, Sam Crawford and Barbara Brenner will be just as important.
Second: It is often said — and the National Journal article is premised on this point — that council candidates cannot speak their mind on the coal terminal because sitting council members will make a “semi-judicial” decision on the permits, on a “sort of mini-court,” as the article puts it.
This leaves voters in the dark about whom to support (if in fact coal is the issue that determines their vote), the article surmises.
This just isn’t true. County council has been given advice from its legal staff to not discuss the issue publicly or meet with stakeholders on the topic. But campaigning council members and council challengers are free to express themselves on this or any other issue. It’s just that legal staff doesn’t want any additional complications when the inevitable appeals against the council’s decision come in.
This freedom for candidates to speak on quasi-judicial manners is codified in state RCW (thanks to my colleague John Stark for finding this):
Public discussion by candidate for public office.
“Prior to declaring as a candidate for public office or while campaigning for public office as defined by RCW 42.17A.005 no public discussion or expression of an opinion by a person subsequently elected to a public office, on any pending or proposed quasi-judicial actions, shall be a violation of the appearance of fairness doctrine.”
Candidates and council members might try to hide behind a concern over appearance of fairness when asked about their stand on the coal terminal. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked — and they will be asked.
Third, there’s a predictable track projects like this follow. By “like this,” I mean projects that require multi-level approval (local, state, federal) and in which native American tribes have a hand.
The National Journal piece has nothing to say about the approvals required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or the power local tribes will have over approvals at the federal level.
My very early prediction: If this coal terminal even makes it this far, the last piece of Gateway Pacific’s permit puzzle will be awaiting the feds’ response to concerns brought up by Lummi Nation.
As detailed on the Gateway Pacific Environmental Impact Statement webpage,
The corps will also consult with applicable tribes as part of the federal treaty trust responsibilities. Consultations could include such issues as usual and accustomed fishing rights, including tribal fishing, fisheries and fisheries habitat, cultural resources, and the tribes’ ability to meet moderate living needs.
Tribes can and have used this requirement to hold up projects indefinitely. And this is one project the Lummis have made a clear statement on: In September 2012, they ceremonially burned a mock check, to symbolize how no amount of Big Coal money would buy their approval.
A wise county council would hold off on its decisions and sit back while behind-the-scenes talks drag on among tribes, the corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which likely will be asked to weigh the Lummis’ concern over threatened salmon.
From Stark: Here’s a handy guide to Appearance of Fairness Law in Washington state, from the Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington State.
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 Arctic Challenger, built and based in Bellingham, appears to have cleared a significant hurdle in getting ready for service when and if Shell Oil is ready to begin Arctic Ocean oil drilling in earnest.
KUOW, the NPR affliliate in Seattle, reports here that the crew from Superior Energy tested the Arctic Challenger’s oil well blowout containment dome in Samish Bay in March.
That would break the streak of bad news for Shell’s effort to mount a significant new Arctic oil-drilling operation. McClatchy News Service summarizes a federal report on Shell’s troubles here.
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 Washington Department of Ecology says its people soon will be checking out sources of fecal contamination in the Bertrand Creek area to try to get contamination of the Whatcom County creek water back to acceptable levels. But what does that have to do with politics?
Well, public pressure helped to convince a majority of Whatcom County Council members to go easy on enforcement of state-mandated septic tank regulations. Owners of those systems objected to the cost of professional inspections, and to the even higher costs for repairs and replacements of failing systems.
As a result, county officials have insisted on strict compliance only in the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor areas. Faced with fines for non-compliance, system owners in those areas have mostly gotten their systems into shape, Health Department officials have reported. But in other areas, there have been no legal consequences for non-compliance, and compliance reportedly is low.
Information on county regulations is available here.
Some County Council members justified the non-enforcement by arguing that there was no evidence that leaking tanks were causing real trouble in most areas.
The Department of Ecology reports that as recently as 2003, Bertrand Creek water’s fecal coliform levels were within state standards. That is no longer the case. Fecal coliform levels have tripled since then.
Ecology reports that this spring, its inspectors will be working in the Bertrand Creek watershed to identify pollution sources, which could be from livestock as well as septic systems. Ecology provides details and a watershed map here.
It also occurs to me that the increased contamination levels could be at least partly explained by reduced water flow in Bertrand Creek, which has been subject to increased withdrawals for agriculture in recent years.
Withdrawals of water from the Nooksack River have prompted local Indian tribes to seek federal intervention to determine how much water is guaranteed to them under treaty rights, for their own use and to maintain healthy salmon and shellfish populations.
Bertrand Creek flows into the Nooksack, which enters Bellingham Bay on the eastern side of the Lummi Indian Reservation. Contaminated river water poses a threat to tribal shellfish harvests on the tideflats.
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: email@example.com.
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.
The Bellingham Planning Commission started its second comment session on waterfront redevelopment plans at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28, and by 8:15, everyone who wanted to talk had been to the microphone.
The last planning commission meeting a week ago was marked by the alliance between unions and environmentalists, endorsing each others’ issues: living-wage jobs on a working waterfront, pristine environmental cleanup and plenty of public access.
At this week’s meeting, there were renewed calls for living-wage jobs and thorough cleanup, along with other concerns.
There was also a hint of a conflict between jobs and public access.
Several commenters noted that earlier versions of waterfront plans had called for a pedestrian and bike path at the water’s edge all along the old pulp mill site southwest of downtown. But the current plan envisions a possible interruption in that path near the Port of Bellingham shipping terminal, if the path would interfere with job-creating industrial uses.
Bellingham resident Mitch Friedman, a longtime environmental activist, said he hoped planners would figure out how to deliver the promised water’s edge access while still creating plenty of good jobs.
Commercial fisherman Jim Kyle said he hoped the commitment to a working waterfront was for the long term, and that the port and the city won’t succumb to the temptation to convert marine industrial land to luxury developments if the real estate market swings skyward again.
“Bellingham is not Marina del Rey, where everything is beautiful and nothing happens. Tell them (developers) Bellingham is a working town, not a bedroom town,” Kyle said.
Kayak builder George Dyson expressed exasperation that current plans have no provision for a dock that would enable recreational boaters to tie up and walk downtown, and no plan to use water transportation to get people around the waterfront.
He also called on port and city to develop alternative plans.
“There is no plan B if developers don’t show up,” Dyson said. “What then?”
Commercial fisherman Robin Dexter said the current plan looked to him like “Bellwether on steroids,” a reference to the Port of Bellingham’s hotel, shop and office development near Squalicum Harbor.
“I don’t want Bellwether,” Dexter said. “No one here wants Bellwether. We want another Bellingham neighborhood.”
Planning Commission Chairman Tom Grinstad said the record will stay open for written comments for at least two more weeks.
Send written comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get caught up on proposed waterfront plans here, on the city website.
I’ll be working on an expanded report for Friday’s website, as well as for the Saturday print edition.
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.”