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Dust in the wind?
Environmentalists are alarmed by six coal export proposals at Northwest ports
After years of lobbying, Portland environmentalists won a remarkable victory in 2010 when Portland General Electric consented to halt coal-burning by 2020 at its Boardman power plant -- the single-largest Oregon source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Washington environmentalists replicated the feat months later, securing a similar pledge for the Northwest's other coal plant in Centralia.
But soon after the deals were announced, and years before utilities will pull the plugs on those coal-fired plants, coal companies quickly submitted six different proposals to export U.S.-mined coal to Asia from six different Oregon and Washington ports.
"It really seems like we're reversing course," says Dr. Andy Harris, on the faculty at Oregon Health and Science University's Global Health Center. "This coal is toxic for our health, but it's OK to ship it overseas?"
Activists in the regional Power Past Coal Coalition quickly ramped up to fight all the coal-export projects, likening them to the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline that would carry Canadian tar-sands oil to Texas. Environmentalists say transporting massive amounts of coal -- all of it through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area -- would degrade the land, air and water and endanger public health.
But climate change is the overriding issue here.
If all six coal export terminals are approved and fully developed, they would 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, if China and India are guaranteed enough fuel to supply a new generation of coal plants that will take decades to pay off.
Brian Gard, a Portland public relations consultant for Ambre Energy, an Australian company proposing two of the six coal-export projects, says it's a case of conflicting values. With so much of the world's population lacking basic services, bringing low-cost electricity to the developing world will improve many peoples' lives, he says. "It's very difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach."
To help sort through this important issue, Sustainable Life offers this primer on Northwest coal exports.
PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper gathers pea-size coal chunks that are easy to find where coal trains cross the White Salmon River near its confluence with the Columbia River.
Why the sudden gold rush to export coal via the Northwest?
Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin contains massive coal reserves available at low cost, but U.S. demand is softening due to environmental regulations, public health concerns and plummeting natural gas prices. Coal-market analysts recently told The Economic Times of India that Indian coal imports could rise fivefold, up to 400 million tons a year, by 2030, and that Chinese coal imports could rise even faster, up to 1 billion tons by 2030.
Coal companies are proposing to ship 146 million tons a year from terminals in Coos Bay, Clatskanie and Boardman, Ore., and Longview, Bellingham and Grays Harbor, Wash.
"If the prices pencil out, they'll do anything they can to dig it out and ship it," says Eric de Place, senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit research center in Seattle focused on environmental sustainability.
How does this affect the Portland area?
"Emissions of carbon pollution in Asia is very much a local issue," Golden says. "We experience the impacts of carbon produced in China identically to the way we experience the impacts of carbon produced here."
Air pollutants from Asian coal plants also make their way here. A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that 18 percent of the mercury detected atop Mount Bachelor came via Asian trade winds, primarily from coal plants.
Shipments to five of the terminals would pass through the Columbia River Gorge on open-air trains hugging either side of the river; the sixth project would use coal barges on the river.
Combined, the six proposals could bring almost 50 coal trains a day through the gorge, says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
The trains average 125 cars, he says, stretching up to a mile and a half. Coos Bay-bound coal trains would pass through North and Southeast Portland; Clatskanie-bound trains also would traverse the city.
The barge proposal would nearly double barge traffic on the Columbia.
"We have a huge responsibility to make sure that this coal doesn't come through here," says Laura Stevens, Portland organizer for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
COURTESY OF SIERRA CLUB
Why is coal so bad for the environment?
The No. 1 concern is climate change, but there are relatively few legal avenues to contest the projects on that basis, while Congress and other nations dither on limiting world carbon emissions.
"I think the real story here is the disconnect between the real reason and the ground it may be fought on," says Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. "The levers are going to be almost all site-specific environmental impacts."
That's not to say those impacts aren't significant.
Diesel train and barge engines emit particulates into the air, and the Columbia Gorge airshed already has compromised air quality.
There's a potential for spills into the river, or for port facilities to interfere with migrating fish.
Then there's the coal dust spraying out of open-air coal trains.
BNSF Railway has long been concerned that coal dust flying off rail cars fouls the ballast along rail lines and weakens its tracks. "BNSF does not believe that any commodity should be permitted to escape from its shipping container and foul the railroad's roadbed or surrounding areas," according to a statement on the railroad's website.
BNSF studies showed that 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust can escape from a single loaded coal car on its long journey, though reference to those studies has been removed from the railroad's website.
Those coal dust estimates are grossly exaggerated, Gard says. Coal is a valuable commodity, he says. "If that was true, there would be people lined up with shovels" to capture the coal.
BNSF requires shippers to apply a chemical agent, known as a surfactant, on coal trains that can reduce coal dust by 85 percent, Gard says.
That doesn't reassure environmentalists. VandenHeuvel, whose office is in Hood River, can look across the Columbia and see the one coal train each day using that route. On windy days, he can see coal dust coming off the trains. And pea-size coal chunks are easily spotted along the rail line as it crosses the White Salmon River, he says.
Are coal exports a health hazard?
There's been little formal study about the effect of coal dust from passing trains. "99.9 percent of what we know about coal dust health effects comes from down in a mine," says Maye Thompson, an RN Ph.D. who serves on the environmental health committee of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. But we do know that coal dust is full of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, benzene and other volatile organic compounds. "They're known to be carcinogens," Thompson says. "They're known to cause heart attacks and strokes and asthma."
Particulate matter from that dust or from diesel engine exhaust lodges into the air sacs of people's lungs.
"That's a particular concern for people who have asthma and heart disease and emphysema and bronchitis."
After coal is burned in Asia, winds bring back mercury and other toxics to Oregon, Harris says. The mercury makes its way into Columbia River fish.
Health experts even worry that long trains will block traffic in urban areas, causing critical delays for ambulance and fire trucks."
Which proposals are the most viable?
That's a moving target. On May 2, Portland General Electric dealt a setback to Kinder Morgan's proposal to export via Clatskanie, when the utility announced it wouldn't lease land for the project because of concerns about coal dust.
Ambre Energy and Arch Coal's proposal for a 5 million-ton export facility in Longview was withdrawn after revelations the company deliberately withheld information that it planned a much larger operation -- for fear of arousing public opposition. Later, Ambre Energy resubmitted its application, for a 44 million-ton facility.
Now Ambre Energy's barging proposal is in the lead. It hopes to open its facility by next summer.
Doesn't Ambre say it's going to meet the highest environmental safeguards?
Yes. Morrow Pacific, its company created for the project, says the coal will be enclosed the entire route after arriving via coal trains from the Powder River Basin. There'd be an enclosed warehouse to transfer the coal from trains at the Port of Morrow near Boardman. Then covered barges would haul the coal to Port Westward near Clatskanie. Then it would be transferred via an enclosed transloader onto oceangoing vessels bound for Asia.
"The Morrow Pacific project raises the bar for environmental standards in coal export operations," the company claims in promotional material. "Between the Port of Morrow facility until it arrives in Asia, there will be no visible coal and little, if any, coal dust."
However, Ambre and Arch Coal's credibility took a hit when a public records request unearthed their secret agenda in Longview.
"They have a terrible track record in terms of dishonesty," Stevens says.
Gard says it was clear all along that Ambre and Arch would have to go back through the permitting process if they hoped to expand the facility. By resubmitting the proposal, "It's an admission that politically it's wiser to put everything out on the table rather than go through a series of permits," he says. "That doesn't mean they were doing anything wrong at all by only talking about the first phase."
What are the economic benefits from Northwest coal export facilities?
Each project could bring construction work plus jobs in rail transport and on the docks.
Morrow Pacific is seeking bids to build 20 enclosed barges, and says it wants to hire locally from Portland-based Gunderson and Vigor Industrial. That $70 million contract could mean 300 construction jobs for two years. The company says it will create 25 permanent jobs in the Boardman area, 25 near Clatskanie, plus 55 jobs for transporting the coal. Ambre isn't seeking any tax breaks, and, as a sweetener to win approval, offered to pay roughly $650,000 a year to schools near Boardman and Clatskanie.
If the Coos Bay project goes through, the Port of Coos Bay says it will ask the coal shippers to foot the bill for needed improvements to the short rail line serving the port and deepening of its shipping channel.
However, ports in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Kalama and Tacoma aren't keen on new coal export terminals.
Coal doesn't bring as much money or jobs as other traded commodities, and it brings more environmental hazards, de Place says. The coal market is volatile, making it an unstable investment for a government-owned port, he says.
Two past attempts to establish West Coast coal export facilities in Portland and Los Angeles were financial disasters and closed down. That may explain why coal companies are pursuing deals with smaller ports that aren't so picky.
What about the notion of "clean coal?"
Coal plants in the U.S. are producing less air pollution because of stiffer environmental regulations -- passed after objections from coal companies, Duncan says. Those make the coal-burning process less efficient, requiring more fuel. Ironically, he says, the result is less particulate matter in the lower atmosphere and more carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere.
Despite considerable research, nobody has mastered the ability to keep carbon emissions from coal plants out of the atmosphere, Duncan says.
Isn't coal a dying industry?
While environmentalists decry coal as a dirty "19th century energy source," no one expects it to be supplanted any time soon.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that coal consumption worldwide will double by 2035, accounting for 27 percent of the world energy supply. It projects domestic consumption to rise 25 percent by 2035, remaining the top source of electricity in the U.S.
"Even the most optimistic projections show renewable energy being a relatively small part of the energy mix by 2050," Gard says. "There's a long transformation period to a significantly different kind of use of energy."
Won't coal companies just find other ways to sell their coal?
"It's awfully naive to assume that if Oregon doesn't export coal that nobody else will," Gard says. Ambre would simply ship its coal out of British Columbia ports instead, he says.
Ambre, which has a 50 percent interest in two Powder River Basin coal mines, also is pursuing a coal export facility in Corpus Christi, Texas.
But coal companies are targeting the Northwest because it's the most direct and cheapest route to Asia. "Whether they could go someplace else and still make it pencil out remains very unclear," Golden says.
The less coal that goes to the international market, the higher the price and the less people will consume, de Place says.
Duncan says international trading in fossil fuels is as
hard to stop as the illegal drug trade. "You don't control it by interdicting the supply; you control it by demand. The real solution is to treat that addiction."
Can these projects be blocked?
Duncan fears that international trade agreements could hinder efforts to bar coal exports.
The city of Portland and Oregon counties have little say over the projects, VandenHeuvel says, but "we believe the state has a lot of discretion to deny these."
Oregon's Division of State Lands must approve permits to install new docks in the Columbia River, and the State Land Board can review that decision, VandenHeuvel says. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality must assure that dredging the river and building of docks won't violate the Clean Water Act.
In Washington, the elected commissioner of public lands makes the call on whether to lease land for port expansions in Bellingham and Longview, Golden says.
But federal agencies, particularly the Bureau of Land Management and Army Corps of Engineers, hold more of the cards. The Army Corps regulates dredging and placement of pilings in the Columbia River. The BLM leases much of the Powder River Basin land that's strip-mined for coal. "We're basically giving away the coal," Golden says of those leases.
"The BLM can start charging fair-market value for the coal, or, for that matter, could start denying licenses and eventually cut off some of the supply," VandenHeuvel says. The federal government also could impose stricter environmental protections against strip-mining Powder River coal, he says.
An official from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently called on the Army Corps to undertake a broad environmental review of the coal-export projects.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber then stepped up and called on federal agencies to evaluate the global impact of the six proposals, including a broad environmental analysis that examines their impact on climate change.
"If the United States is going to embark on the large-scale export of coal to Asia, it is imperative that we ask -- and answer -- the question of how this decision fits into the larger strategy of moving to a lower carbon future," Kitzhaber stated. "In the absence of a clear federal policy on this point, we will simply be deciding by not deciding; locking ourselves into a coal-dependent future for Asia without the benefit of a full discussion, consideration and balancing of all the associated economic, environmental and health problems related to such a course of action."
Ambre would prefer that the government didn't change it's permitting process mid-stream, Gard says.
"We are already in the midst of a rigorous permitting process through the Army Corps of Engineers," he says. "The corps doesn't report to the EPA, nor does it have to follow what the EPA says."