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Wyoming lawmakers want to create a legal fund to sue Washington over coal export terminals

As the state faces a $850 million deficit, lawmakers are considering a bill that would earmark money to sue Washington state over coal export terminals.

A 133 car coal train moves slowly as it's loaded at the Buckskin Coal Mine, 12 miles north of Gillette, Wyoming, (CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
A 133 car coal train moves slowly as it's loaded at the Buckskin Coal Mine, 12 miles north of Gillette, Wyoming, (CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In September, when state regulators in Washington state denied a key permit for what would have been the country’s largest coal export terminal, local environmental and public health groups cheered. They saw this as the final nail in the coffin of a project that has faced almost a decade of resistance.

But more than 1,200 miles to the east, legislators in Wyoming — which would have supplied the coal for the export terminal — are looking for ways to keep the project afloat by considering a new law that would earmark state funds to help pay for legal challenges to permit denials.

The bill, proposed by State Representative Chuck Gray (R), and co-sponsored by four other Republican representatives, would set aside $250,000 in state funds to be used to retain private counsel to help pay for lawsuits challenging Washington state’s denial of several permits related to coal export terminals. The bill’s authors argue that by denying permits for coal export terminals, Washington regulators have violated the Constitution by interfering with both interstate commerce and commerce with foreign nations, since the coal exported from Washington would likely be bound for overseas markets in Asia.

According to the bill, the proposed “coal export terminal litigation account” is necessary to prevent “further harm of serious magnitude to the economic and proprietary interests of the state of Wyoming.” Wyoming is a leading coal producer in the country, accounting for about 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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But a Washington-based representative of the Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal coalition argued that the bill represents an attempt by out-of-state legislators to control the environmental future of Washington residents.

“Washington state residents were clear: They don’t want to live with the public health and environmental impacts that come with being home to the largest coal export facility in North America,” Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, co-director of the Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal coalition, said in a press statement. “Wyoming legislators shouldn’t waste their taxpayers’ money trying to overturn another state’s laws at a time when Asia and the rest of the world is turning away from coal and towards cheaper, cleaner energy sources.”

Gray’s bill comes as Wyoming is currently battling a $850 million state deficit. According to the Casper Star Tribune, the legislature killed all five revenue-boosting proposals — including increases in sales and property taxes — before the state’s legislative session officially began on Monday.

Coal companies in Wyoming would be some of the largest beneficiaries if the proposed terminal were to move forward. This is because most of the 44 million tons of coal that the facility would handle annually would come from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. When the terminal was first proposed in 2010 — alongside a slew of other proposals for coal export terminals throughout the Pacific Northwest — economic growth in Asia was expected to drive a 40 percent increase in coal consumption by 2030. This would make the ports of Oregon and Washington attractive locations for companies looking for the shortest route between the coal mines of the Powder River Basin and Asian markets.

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Since then, however, declining coal consumption coupled with strong local opposition has derailed nearly every single proposal for a coal export terminal throughout the Pacific Northwest. The two largest proposals for coal export terminals were both located in Washington state — one in Bellingham, which was denied outright in 2016 by the Army Corps of Engineers, and another in Longview, which had several key permits denied in September by the Washington Department of Ecology. Combined, the two proposals would have handled some 101.41 million tons of coal a year, which is more coal than the United States exported in all of 2016.

Environmental and public health advocates in Washington fiercely opposed both terminals, arguing that they would harm both local health and the global climate. In Longview, an environmental study conducted by the Washington Department of Ecology found that the proposed terminal would create additional greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to adding 8 million cars to the road over a twenty year period. The study also found that the project would add 16 coal trains per day to local train lines, resulting in higher diesel emissions that would increase cancer risks in neighborhoods near the terminal by 10 percent.

In January of 2016, the Washington Department of Natural Resources denied Millennium Bulk Terminals, the project’s developer, a sublease required to build a loading dock between the terminal and the Columbia River, citing a lack of information about the financial viability of the project. A little less than a year later, the state’s Department of Ecology denied a water quality permit to the project on several grounds, including “unavoidable and negative environmental impacts.”

Millennium has filed lawsuits against state regulators to challenge both permit denials. In October, a court ordered the Department of Natural Resources to reconsider the project’s sublease. Millennium’s parent company Lighthouse Resources (formerly known as Ambre Energy) owns two mines in the Powder River Basin, and currently ships some of that coal overseas to Asia through Canada.