Climate Activists Outspending Big Coal In Crucial Washington State Election


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

Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, likes to say that the three most critical elections of 2013 are the Virginia governor’s race, the Massachusetts special U.S. Senate election won by Edward J. Markey in June, and next Tuesday’s election to see who wins four county council seats in Whatcom County, Washington.

Even if it sounds like he’s joking, he’s dead serious. And he’s overseeing the spending of some serious political money on the third race. That’s because next week’s Whatcom County election has the potential to strike a grievous blow to the drive by the coal industry to jump-start an Asian export program and thereby save the business model that is seriously threatened by declining U.S. coal consumption.

The four Whatcom county council members who get elected on Tuesday may very well decide the fate of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal in the far northwest corner of Washington outside Bellingham. They may also make a decision that, in carbon pollution terms, is arguably as important as the upcoming decision over the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The county council must approve permits for the Gateway Pacific terminal that would send close to 50 million tons of coal to Asia. It’s not the only step in the process — Washington state officials must approve others — but it could be the last if the council says no.

Washington Conservation Voters may end up spending as much as $330,000 to win those usually obscure county races by the time election day is finished next Tuesday, according to Cechovic. The group has raised more than $600,000, including $150,000 from its national parent, the League of Conservation Voters, and $275,000 from a political action committee founded by Tom Steyer, the California climate activist and hedge fund billionaire who has also heavily invested in the Massachusetts Senate and Virginia gubernatorial races.

Coal industry and shipping interests also recognize the stakes and are investing in the local races, as well. But surprisingly, they are being seriously outspent by their opponents. As of this week, Whatcom First, the committee that is backing council candidates considered friendly to the terminal, had spent only about $135,000.

The battle in the Pacific Northwest over the Gateway Pacific terminal, and two other proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon, has ignited a broad movement that ranges from ranchers in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming — home to the coal that would be exported — to homeowners in small towns and cities across the Northern Plains who fear the effects of the increased train traffic, to Native American tribes who want to protect their fishing rights.

That coalition is proving to be a powerful force, turning out thousands of opponents to so-called scoping hearings in the Pacific Northwest that are the preface to the preparation of full-blown environmental impact statements by federal and state agencies.

Next Tuesday, on election day, many of them will be eagerly searching for news from Whatcom County.

Tom Steyer is a member of the Board of Directors at the Center for American Progress.