The Local Election That Could Determine The Future Of American Coal

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"The Local Election That Could Determine The Future Of American Coal"

A train hauling coal to British Columbia heads north out of downtown Seattle.

A train hauling coal to British Columbia heads north out of downtown Seattle.

CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONGVIEW, WASHINGTON — Speaking at a late September rally to oppose the construction of a coal export terminal in this western Washington city, Dawson Dunning, a fifth generation Montana cattle rancher, called Longview the “most important city in Montana.”

His comment, instantly understood by the hundreds of terminal protesters gathered at the Cowlitz Expo Center that was host to a public hearing on the proposal, illustrates the breadth of a political groundswell that is uniting residents from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest against the threat of the coal industry moving into their communities.

Market forces in the U.S. and Asia are buffeting the coal industry and its hopes of making up for a decline in domestic consumption with robust exports to China and other Pacific Rim nations via proposed terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Coal’s share of the U.S. electricity market has been falling, pressured by cheap natural gas and tighter environmental controls like the Obama administration’s recent announcement of tough restrictions on the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

The coalition of coal export opponents, however, is large and diverse — ranging from Montana ranchers, who fear that expanded mining and a new railroad will harm their way of life and livelihoods, to residents of railroad towns worried about traffic congestion and health impacts, to Native American tribes like the Lummi in Washington State, who see a serious threat to their ancestral fishing grounds and sacred sites.

Citizens rally against coal exports in Longview, Washington

Citizens rally against coal exports in Longview, Washington

In the Evergreen State, that movement is gathering steam as federal and state agencies have begun the long process of evaluating the potential environmental impacts of the two terminals proposed for Washington, as well as the train traffic that will be needed to feed them the nearly 100 million tons of coal a year that would be shipped from the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. A third proposed terminal, in Oregon, would have the capacity to ship eight million tons of coal.

A poll released in mid-September by the Power Past Coal coalition found that Washington state voters opposed transporting coal for export through their state 51 percent to 37 percent. Oregon voters opposed the plans by 54 percent to 39 percent. In both states sentiment in opposition has grown in the last year.

As opposition grows and the market value of coal declines, plans for three more Pacific Northwest export terminals have been scrapped by developers in the past year.

The success or failure of one of the two remaining Washington terminal plans, the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point outside of Bellingham — not far from the Canadian border and San Juan Islands — could be determined much sooner than the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals here in Longview on the Columbia River north of Portland, Oregon.

In Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County, a local and notably quirky election in November to elect four county council members is drawing national interest and the potential for huge campaign contributions by industry and environmental groups. The outcome of that local election could deliver a quick kill to the Cherry Point project and a serious blow to the entire enterprise of Asian coal exports.

photoThe seven-member Whatcom County Council that will be elected next month will decide by majority vote whether to approve what is called a shoreline permit for the proposed export terminal. Four ‘no’ votes, and it’s a goner. “It’s a kill strategy: win and be done with it,” said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters. But it’s not an all or nothing strategy; if terminal opponents lose they have other opportunities, including the state commissioner of public lands’ decision on whether to grant a marine permit and Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision regarding clean water permits.

Because the Whatcom County council sits as a quasi-judicial body on the shoreline permit question, none of the council candidates can state their positions during the campaign, setting the stage for an election in which the export terminal will be the giant elephant in the room.

“They’re not expressing their views, but it’s not so you can’t figure it out,” said Lisa McShane, a strategist working with Whatcom County Democrats who opposes the proposed terminal.

The fate of the coal export trade from the West Coast could also be determined by federal and state environmental reviews of the two Washington terminals. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Ecology are jointly studying the Cherry Point proposal, and the state’s share of the analysis will be a broad one that includes the threshold question of whether the terminal will exacerbate global climate change. The two agencies are doing independent analyses of the Millennium Bulk Terminals proposal.

The intensity of the debate here reflects Washington state’s long and proud environmental tradition, but also its reliance on international trade and its strong labor movement.

At last week’s hearing in Longview — the first of five so-called scoping meetings to get the public’s views on which impacts to study during the formal Environmental Impact Statement inquiry — members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and their allies wearing blue shirts with the slogan “More Exports/More Jobs” argued the case for another 130 jobs in the community and testified that Millennium Bulk Terminals had been a good neighbor and responsible environmental steward in the community.

Terminal opponents, wearing red t-shirts with a “Beyond Coal” battle cry, argued in return that the estimated 30 new coal trains a day that would serve the two coal terminals would bring levels of diesel fumes and coal dust that would increase asthma and other health effects, snarl traffic, and discourage clean industries and the jobs they would bring from coming to their community.

“We have a lot to lose here,” said Kathleen Patton, an Episcopal priest in Longview. “We must not sell the health and vitality of this community down the drain.”

Similar arguments are heard in Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County. There, more than 200 doctors and nurses have banded together in an organization, Whatcom Docs, to press for a full-scale “health impact assessment” of the proposed coal terminal.

coaltrain2“Industry wants to discuss jobs versus the environment,” said Dr. Frank James, a family practitioner and public health doctor. “What they don’t want discussed is how many deaths there will be, how many heart attacks, how many strokes” from the increase in small particulates emitted by diesel locomotives.

Outside of Bellingham, the 4,500 member Lummi Nation, heavily reliant on the bounty of salmon, shellfish and other marine life that surrounds their reservation, sees a direct threat to that way of life from a proposed terminal that would be on a prime crabbing area and ancient burial grounds.

“Our family system, our value system and our culture revolve heavily around fishing and gathering,” said Tim Ballew, the Lummi Nation chairman.

Like most Washington State tribes, the Lummi have fishing rights dating to the mid-19th century, rights that were affirmed by a federal court judge in 1974 in what is known as the Boldt decision, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case could be the trump card that kills the Cherry Point terminal. “We’re in this for the long haul,” said Ballew. So are other tribes, stretching from Puget Sound to far southeastern Montana.

In May, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians — 50 tribes spanning seven states — adopted a resolution opposing transport and export of coal through the Pacific Northwest. A separate group, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which guards tribal fishing rights, has called for a comprehensive EIS for all the port proposals, rather than evaluating them one by one.

In southeastern Montana, where Arch Coal has proposed to build the new Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad, large numbers of Northern Cheyenne have risen up in opposition and to protect their homeland. This week, they joined with Lummi from the West Coast to bless a 22-foot tall healing totem pole that the Lummi have taken on tour to highlight the battle they are waging against the coal terminals.

Indian country is not entirely united, however. The Crow Tribe has long sought to develop its coal resources in southeastern Montana, and in June the Department of Interior ratified the tribe’s agreement with Cloud Peak Energy to lease 1.4 billion tons of coal on the reservation. “By developing Crow coal via domestic markets, export terminals and coal conversion, we firmly believe we can help ourselves while simultaneously meeting national energy goals,” tribal chairman Darrin Old Coyote testified to a House committee in July.

As these local battles rage, the economic value of coal is rapidly changing — creating an extremely challenging environment for the U.S. coal industry and its hopes of stemming a decline through the export of domestic coal to Asia through new bulk carrier terminals and potentially setting up a David versus Goliath finale for the growing band of activists in Montana and the Pacific Northwest.

coaltrainCoal prices on the international market, which boomed between 2009 and 2011, have since declined significantly. China’s appetite for importing coal, a big factor in global demand, has waned due to more sluggish economic growth, competition from natural gas, renewables and domestic coal supplies, and pressure from Beijing to attack the nation’s serious air pollution problems, according to participants in a recent media briefing held by Climate Solutions, a Pacific Northwest non-profit.

“The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is shrinking because of markets,” said K.C. Golden, senior policy advisor at Climate Solutions.

Financial analysts agree with that assessment. Last May, a Deutsche Bank markets research report said “in the medium to long term, thermal seaborne coal markets face a combined threat of steadily growing supply in the largest producing regions and a leveling-off or decline in demand in consuming regions.”

For its part, Goldman Sachs reported in July that “the window to invest profitably in new mining capacity is closing. Earning a return on incremental investment in thermal coal mining and infrastructure capacity is becoming increasingly difficult.”

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