Coal companies hope to ship millions of tons of coal per year through the Pacific Northwest to China. Domestic coal consumption is decreasing due to expensive pollution regulations. Electric companies, who purchase the bulk of coal in the United States, are quickly moving towards an inexpensive and cleaner alternative — natural gas — to fire their steam-powered electric generators.
Northwest Coal Export Proposals
Arch Coal, Ambre Energy, Peabody Energy, and others want to ship as much as 150 million tons of coal per year through Washington State and Oregon. That’s enough to fill more than 10,000 trains a year, each over a mile long, according to National Wildlive Association.
America’s largest source of coal is strip mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. It would then be moved in open train cars to ports along the Columbia River and Puget Sound before being shipped overseas to China.
Coal Export Terminals
- The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, in Cherry Point, Washington, would have a capacity around 48 million tons of coal a year.
- Millennium Bulk Terminals plans to build a coal export terminal in Longview, Washington with a capacity of 44 million tons of coal a year.
- The Morrow Pacific coal export terminal, near Clatskanie, Oregon is being proposed by Ambre Energy, which also is backing the larger Longview coal export terminal. Morrow Pacific would have an operational capacity of two barge-tows per day and ship between 3.5 to 8 million metric tons/year. Coal would arrive on covered barges loaded upstream at the Port of Morrow, then directly loaded onto about 50 ocean-going ships a year. According to the EPA, 8.8 million tons/yr barged to Port Westward would translate to approximately 11 trains a week to the Port of Morrow, or 22 trains (round trip) each week.
- A new coal export facility was approved by the port authority in Vancouver, British Columbia in August, 2014. It would ship 8 million tons a year from Wyoming’s Powder River to Asian power plants, doubling the amount of U.S. coal exported from British Columbia ports. That coal would likely pass through the Columbia River Gorge and the Vancouver, Washington region.
These coal export facilities, at Longview WA, Cherry Point WA, Port Westward Oregon (near Clatskanie) and in British Columbia, would bring dozens of coal trains daily through the Columbia River Gorge. They would also jostle for rail facilities and capacity in the Portland/Vancouver region which are now strained beyond their capacity.
Proposed coal trains must also share rails with proposed oil trains.
With new coal and oil trains traveling through the region daily (which also need to return empties), the risk and potential grid lock is real say many residents, environmentalists, developers, and consultants.
Coal Export from Longview Washington
Millennium Bulk Terminals, a subsidiary of Australia’s Ambre Energy , plans to build the first major U.S. coal export terminal on the West Coast in Longview . Millennium would build their coal export facility in Longview, Washington, and has now greatly expanded their plans.
Instead of shipping 5.7 million tons of coal a year, as originally proposed, it now plans for a $600 million terminal to ship 44 million tons a year, from Longview. It would be the largest such coal terminal in North America, The Daily News of Longview reported on February 23, 2012.
Millennium Bulk Terminals, is planning to develop a 406-acre Reynolds facility in Longview, Washington into a coal terminal, reports TDN. Millennium’s CEO, said he thinks projected Asian demand for coal could support “multiple” terminals on the Columbia River.
The proposed export facility  would ship from 5 to 60 million tons of coal to Asia annually. Five million tones is an amount said to be roughly equal to the amount of coal burned in the whole state of Washington, reports SustainableBusinessOregon .
If approved, Longview’s proposed Millennium Bulk Terminal would export 44 million tons of coal per year (the largest in the United States), and would bring 16 coal trains down the Columbia and through Longview each day.
The New York Times reported on Feb 4, 2012 , that court records show that leaders of the company planning to build the facility, now called Millennium Bulk Terminals, tried to limit what state officials knew about its long-term goals during the early permitting process last year.
The company’s initial application  described a facility that could export up to five million tons of coal per year. But court records show that the company hoped to greatly expand that amount in a second phase to 20 million tons or even 60 million tons annually.
Opposition groups, led by Portland-based Columbia Riverkeeper , have already come out against both plans, saying they’re worried about the health effects of coal dust in the community and a large number of coal trains clogging vehicle traffic.
Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community  formed last year to protest the proposed $600 million coal terminal from Millennium Bulk Terminals at the former Reynolds Metals Co. site west of Longview .
If all the cloud computing services in the world were an actual country, that nation would be the about the sixth-largest electric power consumer in the world. NPR reports that Greenpeace places “the cloud” right after Germany and before Russia.
Cloud computing consumed 30 billion watts of power a year in 2012, as much power as produced by 30 nuclear power plants. Coal dust might pretty much rule out Longview as a location for a $1 billion data center.
Two Coal Export Proposals for Clatskanie, Oregon’s Port Westward
In January, Port of St. Helens commissioners approved lease options for two coal terminals for Port Westward. The five-member The Port of St. Helens commission unanimously approved a lease option from Pacific Transloading, a subsidiary of Amber Energy, to operate their barge dock. They also voted 4-1 to approve a lease option from Houston-based energy giant Kinder Morgan to build a rail-fed coal terminal for Port Westward.
Two giant energy companies have submitted separate proposals to develop coal export facilities at Port Westward . It would be located on the Columbia, north of Clatskanie, Oregon , potentially making the Columbia River a major thoroughfare for transporting coal to Asia.
Kinder Morgon’s proposal, which would bring coal into Port Westward by train, has now been pulled, so only the Pacific Transloading proposal for coal export remains for Port Westward. Co-located Global Partners would also use ocean-going barges from Port Westward – to move oil to refineries in Pudget Sound.
Kinder Morgon’s (defunct) Coal Export from Port Westward
Port Westward (above), on the Oregon side, is about 12 miles downriver from the proposed Longview coal export facility.
Kinder Morgan’s (now dead) $150 to $200 million facility at Portwestward would use coal trains (company fact sheet). It would export about 15 million tons of coal annually.
Scott Learn, of the Oregonian reports that the agreements with Kinder Morgan and Ambre Energy would provide construction work and up to 105 full-time jobs.
UPDATE: Portland General Electric has apparently blocked Kinder Morgan’s plans for a coal export terminal.
PGE renewed a 99-year lease in 2008 on 852 acres of developable land at the Port of St. Helens-owned land near Clatskanie.
In turn, PGE can sublease the property. But PGE – which itself runs two power-generation facilities on that property – decided in mid-April that Kinder Morgan’s facility could have detrimental effects on its own operations.
PGE spokesman Steve Corson told the Spotlight May 2 his company felt the presumed coal dust that would come from the export terminal might harm its significant investments if Kinder Morgan moved in next door.
Ambre Energy/Pacific Transloading Coal Export from Port Westward
A second coal export facility, Pacific Transloading, has also been proposed for the same Port Westard location. It differs from the Kinder Morgan proposal in that it plans to barge coal to Port Westward. It would move coal on barges down the river from Port Morrow in Central Oregon to ships docked at the Port Westward export facility. Pacific Transloading says it would only export about 8 million tons of coal annually.
Oregon DEQ issued the first draft permits, giving an initial nod to Ambre Energy’s plans to build Morrow-Pacific’s barge-based export terminals. Ambre also needs permit approvals from Oregon’s Department of State Lands and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency in the coal export reviews. But State Lands said no.
In August 2014, Oregon’s Department of State Lands determined that, despite a two-year review, Ambre Energy hadn’t done enough to analyze alternatives that would avoid harming tribal fisheries at the Port of Morrow. The agency therefore denied the company a removal fill permit. Ambre had 21 days to file for an appeal before an administrative law judge, whose decision can be reviewed in state appellate courts.
Ambre Energy, the Port of Morrow and the State of Wyoming are appealing the decision by the State of Oregon to deny a key permit for a proposed coal export terminal in Boardman.
Oregon’s DEQ issued three Morrow permits in February 2014, but added another coal hurdle, called a 401 Water Quality Certification. Morrow Pacific still needed permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands before going ahead with the effort.
Amber Energy says The Morrow Pacific Project will create 25 new jobs in Morrow County and 25 new jobs in Columbia County where the coal is transferred to oceangoing barges. These will be well-paying jobs, says Amber Energy, with average salaries in the range of $50,000 to $90,000.
The Morrow Pacific project, being developed by Ambre Energy, would have an operational capacity of two barge-tows per day and would ship between 3.5 to 8 million metric tons with port approval. Coal would arrive on covered barges loaded upstream at the Port of Morrow, then directly loaded onto about 50 ocean-going ships a year.
Another Ambre subsidiary company, Millennium Bulk Logistics of Longview, is also the one hoping to build the Longview coal export, about 12 miles up the river, which would import coal by train (on the Washington side).
But Pacific Transloading’s parent company, Amber Energy, can’t be trusted, say critics. They mislead Longview officials on the size of their Longview proposal, initially saying the export facility would only export 5.7 million tons. On September 2, 2010, Millennium filed an application with Cowlitz County to build and operate a 5.7 million ton per year facility in Longview. But the company deliberately misled officials about the size of the project. In fact, Amber Energy was planning a facility ten times that size all along – 45 million tons to 60 million tons – or more.
Boardman’s coal-fired electricy generating plant burns 3 to 5 million tons of coal per year, according to Laura Stevens of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
While Ambre Energy promises to add some jobs to the region, what about the jobs lost and the businesses negatively impacted by the coal terminal, asks Tom Kelly in a Sustainable Business OpEd. From fishing and agriculture to recreation and tourism, we could see up to a $2 billion loss, according to an economic study released by Ecotrust in March.
This same study compares coal jobs to clean energy jobs, showing the number of jobs created per $1 million invested. Coal industry jobs are at the bottom of the list.
Puget Sound Coal Export
New coal export facilities are also planned for Pudget Sound. At least some of that coal is likely to be shipped down the Columbia River Gorge and through the already congested Vancouver, Washington region.
But the price of coal on global markets has fallen to about $70 a ton after peaking at $130 in 2011, notes the Seattle Business Journal. China’s coal use growth rate fell to zero in the first half of 2014 — the first time that’s happened since the beginning of China’s economic climb, said Kelly Mitchell, Energy Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA.
Seattle-based SSA Marine, which is developing the proposed Gateway Pacific project, disagreed on the predicted coal decline, citing projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that global coal burning will climb to 250 quadrillion BTUs in 2040, from about 150 quadrillion in 2010.
Coal exporting is being pushed by coal companies who have huge reserves in the Power River basin in Montana and Wyoming. Coal is primarily used for firing steam powered electricity generators. Coal consumption is decreasing in the United States, primarily due to new expensive environmental restrictions and a relatively “clean” and increasingly cheaper alternative — natural gas.
Coal’s primary advantage is that it is cheap and plentiful in the United States. But coal is a “dirty” fuel, with major green house and particulate emissions.
Whether the business of coal export is sustainable is another question. Proponents say China will need our coal for decades. Opponents say greener alternatives such as wind, solar, and natural gas make it a bad economic gamble. In addition, railroad congestion and environmental danger make it a bad bet for the Northwest.