Coal Exporting: Opposition & Support

Portland Tribune

Promoters of coal export terminals say the Asian market for coal is expanding fast. Opponents say coal export brings major environmental risks and is fiscally speculative.

If all six coal export terminals were approved (including the three canceled ones at Coos Bay, Grays Harbor, WA, and the Kinder-Morgan proposal for Port Westward, OR), they could feed enough carbon dioxide-spewing coal plants in Asia to equal 65 Boardmans. “Then we’re all toast,” says KC Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions in Seattle. “It becomes mathematically impossible to stabilize the climate at safe levels,” he says.

According to China Coal Resource, China’s coal use has dropped this year by 1.28%, even though Chinese electricity consumption has increased by 4% over the year.

Barging Coal on Columbia Disapproved by State Lands Board and Transportation Board

Oregon’s Department of State Lands in mid August, 2014, dealt a serious blow to Ambre Energy’s proposed coal export project, denying a key permit needed for construction in the Columbia River. Ambre Energy would use the terminal to ship over 8 million tons of coal annually along the Columbia River and through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

In a second decision against the Ambre Coal barge proposal in August 2014, the state’s top transportation officials rejected a $2 million grant sought by the Port of St. Helens for Amber’s coal export facility at Port Westward that would expand a dock on the Columbia River near Clatskanie. Barges would transfer coal there onto larger ships that would then go to Asian buyers.

Ambre’s planned $242 million project would move coal from Wyoming and Montana by train to Boardman and barge it down the Columbia River to Port Westward, near Clatskanie. Then it would be loaded on major ships bound for Asia, reports the Oregonian. Coal terminal opponents like Columbia Riverkeepers had pinned their hopes on the department’s decision and celebrated it.

Amber’s Transloading proposal “would unreasonably interfere with the paramount policy of this state to preserve the use of its waters for navigation, fishing and public recreation,” said Kirk Jarvie of DSL’s Wetlands and Waterways Conservation Division, in an Aug. 18 letter sent to Ambre Energy.

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.

The coal export planned for the Columbia River include the smaller Amber Energy barge proposal for transporting 8 million tons to Portwestward, Oregon and a much larger 44 million tons/yr coal export facility, also planned by Amber, in Longview.

BC Approves Coal Export Facility

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.

Liz Fuller, a spokeswoman for Ambre Energy, said it’s ironic that the new British Columbia export project might send coal via rail through the Columbia River Gorge, after the state of Oregon rejected Ambre’s more environmentally friendly proposal to barge coal down the Columbia River instead. “The project was designed to mitigate environmental impacts,” she said, and avoid shipping coal via congested rail lines in the Portland area.

“We have been saying for awhile that if it doesn’t happen in the Northwest, it’s going to happen in B.C.,” Fuller said.

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. Columbia Riverkeepers keeps tabs.

The EPA said that the Port of Morrow project has “the potential to significantly impact human health and the environment,” and called for a full review of the potential impacts of exporting large amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

Longview’s Coal Export Proposal Still On

Longview’s coal export facility would ship 44 million tons to China from trains running down the Gorge. Amber’s Millennium Bulk Terminal, at the Port of Longview, would be located at the former Reynolds Metals smelting site.

On April 5, the EPA submitted public comments (PDF) expressed some potential red flags:

The Columbia River Gorge Commission raised a host of concerns about the transport of coal and oil by rail.

A Sightline Institute investigation found that “500 pounds to a ton of coal can escape from a single loaded car,” using calculations by the BNSF railroad.

Oregon’s governor called on federal agencies to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impacts of coal-export projects, saying the United States risks locking Asian countries into dependency on fossil fuels if it expands access to vast American coal reserves.

World Electricity Use

The Whatcom Docs – a large group of doctors in Whatcom County say increased Coal Train Traffic Could Mean Bad News For Public Health, with the effects of air pollution real and measurable.

Port Edward coal cloud

The coal cloud from BC’s Port Edward illustrates the concerns about the coal dust from an export terminal.

BNSF plans to increase rail traffic directly to the Cherry Point coal terminal. BNSF has proposed building a second track to connect its main north-south line to the coal export terminal at Cherry Point. As many as nine trains per day, loaded with coal and perhaps other cargoes, would reach the site via the rail line through Bellingham and Ferndale, and return on the same route.

Meanwhile, the BP refinery on Cherry Point got its first rail shipment of Bakken crude oil on Dec. 26, 2013, and has a permit to accept one such train per day. Farther south, the smaller Phillips 66 refinery is constructing its own crude oil train terminal.

According to Longshore Shipping News, coal export backers say it would create 4,400 direct, indirect and induced jobs. Critics fear increased train traffic, train engine emissions and coal dust.

Besides questions over the environmental impact, critics say the oil and coal terminals in Washington and Oregon would snarl traffic with rail traffic. Barges headed down to Oregon’s Port Westward terminal would stop trains and pose an environmental and safety risk for the region.

Agreements with the Port of St. Helens were hammered out in secret, said Laura Stevens, organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign[28]. Opponents expected the commission to hear proposals from the two companies, considered publicly for the first time Jan 25, 2012, but not to vote on agreements. Instead the commissioners held a closed executive session, then endorsed the agreements that may lead to exporting coal through the port’s Port Westward industrial park in Clatskanie[29].

The Keystone XL Pipeline and new coal export terminals in the Northwest combined, have a huge carbon impact, says the environmental group, Sightline Institute.

Some 100 million metric tons of Powder River Basin coal would be exported each year in the Northwest. That’s the sum of the 48 million tons planned for Cherry Point, Washington; 44 million tons planned for Longview, Washington; and 8 million tons planned for Portwestward, Oregon.

The US Energy Information Administration says each ton of coal produces nearly 2 tons of CO2, on average. That would be an estimated 199 million metric tons of CO2 being exported by the Northwest. That’s more than the estimated 158 million metric tons of CO2 for oil moved in the XL pipeline, says Sightline Institute.

According to a study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, exporting 140 million tons of coal per year would add nearly 280 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and require 60 trains a day to transport to the West Coast.

Solar Cheaper than Coal

Even WITHOUT taking important health and safety costs, advocates say solar can be cost-competitive with coal and will get more so. The competitive price of natural gas, wind, and solar may make coal export to China a short-term business model doomed to collapse.


Proponents of the coal export facilities say these are major facilities for the Northwest. They will bring new jobs and create large-scale infrastructure improvement for the Columbia River and the coast that will result in long term economic development and employment for the whole region.

China needs coal. We’ve got it. If we don’t built a coal export facility, British Columbia will. That coal will likely travel through the Columbia Gorge and Vancouver, Washington, anyway.

Detractors of the coal export facilities say the transportation impact and infrastructure costs will have a negative impact on the region, as well as diminishing the general health and environment. They say coal exports are an act of desperation by a rust-belt industry and bring financial risk. China is already moving to natural gas and sustainable alternatives like solar and wind.

Coal investment in the Northwest could backfire and leave a legacy of cleanup costs for generations. Port decisions, determined in part by money on the table, can negatively affect the region 2-3 years down the line. Never mind the environmental issues.

Coal is still powering the United States:

Obama: “This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal, that we mine right here in the United States of America, and make it work. We can do that”.

Soren Wheeler of RadioLab takes us to Butte Montana, home of the Berkeley Pit. Artist Edward Burtynsky produced a documentary film called Manufactured Landscapes.


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