BELLINGHAM - Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who recently stepped down after two terms as Montana governor, thinks the furious opposition to a Cherry Point coal export terminal means doom for the project.
"There's so much resistance to the project in the community," Schweitzer said. "Unless that local resistance changes, coal is not going to be shipped at Cherry Point."
Schweitzer was referring to SSA Marine's proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, envisioned as a major new shipping point for export of coal and other bulk cargoes from a Whatcom County site between the BP Cherry Point refinery and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter. While labor unions and business groups are supportive, the project has galvanized environmentalists, who predict health woes and traffic disruptions from coal trains, as well as global impacts from coal burning in Asia.
The preliminary "scoping" phase of the environmental impact study process attracted an unprecedented 120,000 public comments.
Gateway Pacific spokesman Craig Cole said SSA Marine officials don't share Schweitzer's dim view of the project's chances. He pointed to polling data indicting that a majority of people in Whatcom County and the Northwest are favorably disposed toward new coal export facilities.
Cole also noted that Gateway Pacific is legally required "to demonstrate its ability to meet Washington's high environmental standards. By so doing, it will become one of the most environmentally sound port projects of its kind."
Gateway Pacific opponent Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline Institute, says the battle over the coal terminal is just beginning.
"I think it's very far from a settled matter," de Place said. "Schweitzer may be fairly calling the first round of the fight for the opposition movement, but we've got 15 rounds in this fight."
The process of drafting an environmental impact statement for the project is expected to take years, and that document will get significant public scrutiny before county, state and federal regulators decide if it complies with the law and deserves permits.
Montana's Schweitzer said Gateway Pacific's foes may have good intentions, but stopping the export of Montana and Wyoming coal won't have any real impact on the planet.
Schweitzer accepts the science of climate change caused by fossil-fuel burning, and he said he shares environmentalists' concerns. He also said he has personally observed climate change's effect on Montana's glaciers and forests.
As he sees it, keeping Montana coal out of Asian power plants won't reduce the burning of coal.
"Those coal-fired plants have been built in Asia," Schweitzer said. "They will run for 30 to 50 years until they are obsolete, or wear out. For 30 to 50 years it is already baked in. ... It's nice that you care about climate change but (stopping Gateway Pacific) is not going to change how much carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere. ... It's simply giving more coal business to Russia and Australia and less to Montana. The whole notion of 'Think globally, act locally,' I love that. It looks good on a T-shirt."
Some of the coal that will be burned in place of Montana coal will have a higher mercury content and a lower heat content per ton of carbon dioxide, he said.
He mocked environmentalists who, in his view, have an absurd notion about how Asian nations will react to the defeat of Gateway Pacific: "If we can't get this coal from Montana, we're going to just blow up this coal plant, live in a cave and eat nuts," Schweitzer said.
To de Place, Schweitzer's outlook is shortsighted and morally dubious.
"Even if our actions do not by themselves arrest climate change, we have a moral obligation to contribute to the transition from the world's dirtiest fuel," de Place said.
He acknowledges that China and other industrial countries will be burning lots of coal for years to come, but stopping Gateway Pacific is one small step away from a fossil-fuel-fired world. It is true, de Place says, that once coal power plants are built, they will belch carbon dioxide for years. He doesn't want to encourage Asian countries to build any more of them.
"If you increase the supply (of coal) and the reliability of the supply ... prices will go down and consumption will go up," de Place said.
He also challenged the idea that since coal is going to be burned, this country ought to supply it.
"It's kind of a drug-pusher's argument: 'You're just going to get the cocaine from somewhere else, so we might as well sell it,'" de Place said. "There are some things we shouldn't do, just because they're not the right thing to do."