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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Exporting Wyoming Coal to Asia

Air Date: Week of

An open pit coal mine in the Powder Ridge Basin of Wyoming. (Photo: Kimon Berlin)

Coal mines are booming in the Rocky Mountain West, and mining companies need expanded deep water terminals. Asia is hungry for coal, but some Pacific coast residents are not in favor of huge new export facilities at their ports. Ashley Ahearn of the Public radio collaborative EarthFix reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Coal companies are looking to the Pacific Northwest as the fastest way to bring the huge quantities they're mining from Wyoming and Montana to Asian markets.

There are now at least five ports in Washington and Oregon considering coal export terminals. Last week we reported on those mining operations, and in the second part of our series on Coal in the Northwest we head to what might one day become the largest coal export facility on the West Coast. Ashley Ahearn of the public radio collaborative EarthFix has our story from Bellingham, Washington.


AHEARN: Kevin Ranker points his motorboat towards Cherry Point and guns the engine.

RANKER: It’s gonna be a bumpy one!

AHEARN: Ranker’s the state senator who represents the nearby San Juan Islands. As we come around a bend in the coast we can see an oil refinery and an aluminum smelter off in the distance. Between them is a long stretch of tree-lined waterfront. This is the proposed site of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

It would be big enough to handle 48 million tons of coal per year. That’s equivalent to almost half the amount of coal the entire country exports right now. Almost 500 ships a year would be passing through this waterway on their way to and from Asia.

As an islander, Ranker spends a lot of time on the water. So do many of his constituents. He shares their fear that all of these ships moving back and forth will increase the likelihood of an oil spill.

RANKER: I’m hearing a lot of concern. Mostly from people who are fearful of what this will mean. We’re going to see an environmental and an economic impact that will devastate Washington State.

AHEARN: Each of these ships carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel. Ranker looks across the water at an oil tanker parked at the refinery.

RANKER: If we dramatically increase the vessel traffic then we need to dramatically increase the oil spill preparedness and response program and who’s going to pay for that increase?

AHEARN: That’s one of the questions at the core of the debate over coal exports in the Northwest: Who picks up the tab? Ranker’s not getting an answer to that question. The coal companies have been very good to Wyoming. They’ve funneled millions of tax dollars into state and county coffers to build things like recreational centers, schools and other public projects.

But that’s money for Wyoming. Those companies aren’t based in Washington or Oregon, so the Northwestern states won’t see direct tax revenue from them. Craig Cole is a spokesman for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. He argues that economic activity anywhere in the country is good for the entire country.

COLE: I guess you could say that building cars in Detroit doesn’t help us but yes it does, because it strengthens the national economy and we’re a part of that.

AHEARN: If all five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon are built they would create hundreds of long-term jobs at the ports, with several thousand workers employed during the initial phases of construction.
The Association of Washington Businesses as well as some of the most powerful labor unions in Oregon and Washington have come out in support of coal exports. Craig Cole says that’s no surprise in this economy.
COLE: I’m kind of pragmatic. I think if we’ve got something that can fuel jobs in our country, and fuel our economy and rebalance trade, we should take advantage of it. Right now we need to sell whatever we can sell, whether it’s a natural resource based commodity or whether it’s high tech.

AHEARN: Environmental groups say the full cost of exporting coal through the Northwest outweighs the economic benefits. Increased train traffic will mean more air pollution, dust, noise and traffic disturbances in communities along the rail lines. And that’s to say nothing of the effect of burning the coal at the end of its voyage to Asia.

MORSE: Coal is the single largest source of CO2 emissions, which makes it really the heart of the climate problem.

AHEARN: Richard Morse is a coal expert at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. He says global coal consumption is expected to rise by 65 percent in the next 20 years or so. Right now Asia uses five billion tons of coal every year. The amount of coal that would be exported through the Northwest would be about two percent of that.

MORSE: Are the emissions that come out of the West coast if they export that coal going to make or break climate change? No. Is how we deal with that going to set an important precedent for other fuels and future more comprehensive policy? Yes it is.

AHEARN: Right now the U.S. doesn’t have a national policy in place to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That means coal can’t legally be treated differently than any other commodity, despite its potential to change the global climate.
Washington Congressman Jim McDermott recently introduced a bill that would tax carbon* – and therefore, coal exports. (See correction below). The revenue would go towards the national debt and towards helping communities - like those in his home state - deal with the impacts of increased train and ship traffic from moving coal.
It’ll be a tough bill to pass. For now, the opposing sides of the coal export debate in the Northwest are squaring off as the two largest proposed terminals begin the environmental review process this fall. I’m Ashley Ahearn in Bellingham, Washington.
CURWOOD: Ashley Ahearn reports for the public radio collaborative EarthFix.
*ERROR AND CORRECTION: Congressman McDermott has introduced a carbon tax measure, but it would not apply to the shipping of coal for export. The bill he filed that would impose a $10 per ton tax on extracted coal is called the "True Coast of Coal Act." Tax proceeds would fund the mitigation of any adverse effects from the shipping of coal. See the link below this story for more details.



Earth Fix based out of KUOW in Seattle

Cong. McDermott's statement on "True Cost of Coal Act"


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