Exporting coal from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to markets around the world by way of shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest is shaping up to be one of the next big environmental fights.
Currently five export terminals are proposed for Oregon and Washington, which would also require additional infrastructure like new coal trains running from the interior West to the coast.
There is serious money to be made from shipping coal abroad. As David Roberts at Grist pointed out: “the health of the U.S. coal industry hinges on its ability to increase exports to China and India.” So it’s no surprise that the coal, rail, and shipping industries spent nearly a million dollars in one month on television ads supporting the construction of coal export terminals.
A ThinkProgress analysis of the Kantar Media Group’s CMAG data reveals that the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports spent approximately $866,000 in Oregon and Washington in September on TV spots lauding the benefits of building coal export terminals.
The Alliance — which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer referred to as “astroturf” this summer — is a trade association consisting of major Powder River Basin coal mining companies like Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, and Cloud Peak Energy, as well as the interests promoting the various shipping terminals like Ambre Energy and SSA Marine. Rail and shipping companies, other business associations, and local labor groups are also part of the alliance.
Most of the coal that will be shipped from the five proposed terminals is from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. The vast majority of this coal is found under federal public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, meaning that it belongs to American taxpayers (about 43 percent of all the coal mined in the U.S. is from public lands). As ClimateProgress has reported before, taxpayers are getting a raw deal in this equation:
Over the last 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has held “auctions” with one bidder and sold the resource for almost nothing, keeping coal prices artificially low…In one recent auction, the largest private coal company in the world, Peabody Energy, secured taxpayer-owned coal for $1.11 per ton. The company will likely be able to sell it in China for around $100 per ton.
While the industry touts the jobs and economic development that will come with the shipping terminals, railways, and other infrastructure associated with coal exports, local communities along the rail routes and the coast worry about health and land impacts like coal dust and noise. Sportsmen have also warned that coal exports could damage salmon and other wildlife habitat. And exporting coal to be burned overseas also presents a “moral crossroads” on climate change.
It is unclear exactly how much influence the group’s spending will have on the political, media, and legal battles growing around coal exports. But the Energy Information Administration determined earlier this week that the U.S. is on track to ship record amounts of coal abroad in 2012.
Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Land Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.