Coal Export Plan Goes Right Through Heart of Pacific Northwest

As domestic use dips, plan is to cheaply move it to Asia. Sensitive areas in between gird for fight.

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A coal truck passes under an array of conveyer belts that move coal at the processing plant at Mettiki Maryland Coal Mine in Red House, Md., Friday, Sept. 15, 2006. Mettiki, owned by Alliance Resource Partners LP. of Tulsa, Okla., is ending its Maryland mining operations after 29 years of extracting more than 66 million tons of coal from Backbone Mountain. It will cut the last coal from its Maryland reserves in the Freeport seam Oct. 4, and then begin disassembling and moving the huge longwall mining machine to the new Mountain View mine seven miles away in West Virginia.

Let the coal transport wars begin. 

While most of the national attention over energy shipments across the continental United States in the past year or so has focused on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to oil refineries in Houston, Texas, another big energy transport fight looms just off stage.

As electric utility companies make the switch from coal to cheaper natural gas--an energy source that generally contributes about half as much long-term atmospheric carbon pollution to climate change as coal--a move that has begun to reduce carbon emissions broadly in the U.S., the major American coal companies have begun to look outside the U.S. for export sales.

Yet as these coal companies gear up to mine new sources of coal and ship it abroad for export sales to coal-hungry countries like China and India, a new fight has emerged in one of the most unlikely places, the eco-friendly Pacific Northwest.

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Perhaps the biggest remaining source of cheap coal lies in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. While it isn't widely known, the Obama administration has been quite generous with ultra-cheap coal leases in the public parts of the Powder River Basin. In short, big coal companies don't pay much for the right to mine coal at Powder River, thanks to the current White House.

But in order for that Powder River coal to make it overseas to China and India, it must first make its way out of Wyoming and Montana to ports in Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest. Coal companies have proposed two routes to six export terminals in those two states--and that's where the battle has joined.

One route winds south out of Powder River, through Wyoming and Idaho and to coastal and inland ports like Coos Bay and the Port of St. Helens in Oregon and Longview in Washington. A second northern route leaves Powder River and terminates at Grays Harbor and Cherry Point in Washington. In short, Oregon and Washington are poised to become gateways for Powder River coal.

Groups like the National Wildlife Federation, a group that represents the "hook and bullet" crowd of hunters and fishermen as well as conservation and wildlife enthusiasts in places like the Pacific Northwest, have begun to pay closer attention.

"In addition to building or enlarging ports in sensitive aquatic habitat, the export plan includes a massive build-up of rail traffic, ferrying tens of millions of tons of coal annually from Wyoming and Montana, through Idaho to ports along the Columbia River and in Puget Sound," the group wrote in a new national report on the looming fight.

"Mile-and-a-half long freight trains, known in the railroad world as 'black snakes,' would leave a trail of coal dust, toxic pollution, health problems and disrupted communities from Wyoming's Powder River Basin to the Pacific Ocean," said the report, which was released jointly with the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

The new National Wildflife Federation report doesn't pull any punches, elaborating on everything from diesel emissions and coal dust from long lines of rail cars that drop toxic elements like mercury into waterways to port construction and barge traffic that harm fisheries habitat.

"Sending more coal to Asia carries almost no benefits for the U.S., but we pay the price," says Felice Stadler, the conservation group's energy campaign director. "Degraded fisheries, damaged communities, medical costs, harms to wildlife, and a continued burning of high-carbon fuel will cost us dearly for decades."

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So far, U.S. coal companies have tried to keep a lid on issues with the Powder River Basin plans while launching a $120 million ad campaign this year to extol the virtues and economics of cheap coal. "The clock is ticking, America," the coal campaign concludes in one of its many national television ads.

The coal industry has also sided with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, presumably more of an ally in the battle should he reach the Oval Office. One of the Republican's recent photo ops occurred in front of a backdrop of coal miners in Ohio.

But while the national presidential campaign and control of Congress may top the coal companies' national political agenda, the fight over transport routes through the Pacific Northwest affects their bottom line and may, in the end, be a much more difficult route to navigate.

"In an irony lost on no one," the National Wildlife Federation report said, "the cheapest and fastest route from the western coal fields of the Powder River Basin goes straight through the Pacific Northwest--a region that is probably the most environmentally conscious in the country."

And if the coal companies can't send cheap export coal from Powder River by rail or barge through the Pacific Northwest, then what? That, as they say, is the proverbial (multi)million-dollar question, and the reason why a new front in the coal wars has just emerged.