Gathered at the site of an old aluminum smelter in Longview last month, politicians and business leaders lauded what they hope will be a new future for the facility: Exporting U.S. coal to countries in Asia.
At the same time, about two dozen protesters on the street outside derided the plan for a coal export terminal, bearing signs that told passing cars, “We can do better.”
The potential for coal dust and increased local train traffic are big issues for environmental groups that oppose building two coal export terminals in Washington.
Yet proponents of the proposed coal export terminals — one along the Columbia River in Longview, the other at Cherry Point near Bellingham — say the facilities would bring much-needed jobs to Washington, as well to the coal-producing states of Montana and Wyoming.
The debate over the coal export terminals is also philosophical: As Washington and the nation move away from burning fossil fuels, should the United States be building facilities that would double U.S. exports of coal to the rest of the world?
If completed, together the two coal export terminals would roughly double the nation’s annual coal exports.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, raised that issue two years ago in a letter to federal officials, telling them they must consider the long-term environmental consequences of supporting the coal industry.
“Before the United States and our trading partners make substantial new investments in coal generation and the infrastructure to transport coal, extending the world’s reliance on this fuel for decades, we need a full public airing of the consequences of such a path,” Inslee wrote.
In a similar vein, President Obama this month cited America’s status as a “global leader” in fighting climate change as part of his reason for rejecting a permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would have delivered crude oil from Canada to the United States. In a statement explaining the decision, Obama said the United States must “hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world.”
If the the two coal export terminals proposed in Washington are approved and completed, they would together roughly double the nation’s annual coal exports, increasing U.S. coal shipments to other nations by more than 100 million tons per year.
Both projects are now undergoing state and federal environmental reviews to evaluate their potential effects on air quality, train traffic and carbon emissions.
PROPONENTS SAY IT’S ABOUT ADDING JOBS, HELPING CHINA
Supporters of building the Longview terminal say the $680 million project will create 135 permanent jobs in the Southwest Washington port city, along with 1,350 temporary construction jobs.
Similarly, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point would create another 430 permanent jobs, along with $21.7 million in wages and salaries for workers employed during construction, according to a report prepared for SSA Marine, the company looking to complete the project.
Business leaders say the terminals would create even more jobs indirectly due to the economic boost they would provide to local communities, as well as to coal-mining regions in Wyoming and Montana.
Those two states are looking for ways to transport their coal to overseas buyers — especially ones in China, a nation that has continued to invest in coal-fired power plants as the United States has reduced its reliance on coal.
Bill Chapman, the president and CEO of Millennium Bulk Terminals, said building a coal export terminal in Washington won’t affect how much coal gets burned in China. But it will affect the number of jobs available in Washington, Montana and Wyoming, he said.
If we care about these folks and the air they are breathing — and they are going to be burning coal, and we have a cleaner, better product — why wouldn’t we try to get that to them?
Montana state Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip
Chapman, whose company is proposing to build the coal export terminal in Longview, said if U.S. coal isn’t available to the Chinese, China will just import coal from other countries such as Australia.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” Chapman said. “There’s no reason to turn down a proposal for jobs that helps other states in America.”
Several lawmakers from Montana and Wyoming went even further, saying the low-sulfur coal mined from their states’ Powder River Basin is a cleaner type of coal than what’s available from countries like Indonesia and Australia, and therefore could improve China’s air quality.
Montana state Sen. Duane Ankney, a Republican from the coal-mining community of Colstrip, said last month that finding a way to send his region’s coal to China is “a moral imperative.” At a press conference at the proposed Longview terminal site, Ankney said Chinese families and children should be able to breathe clean air just like families in the United States.
In a phone interview this week, Ankney said his moral imperative speech was perhaps “stretching it a little bit.”
“But the fact is, if we care about these folks and the air they are breathing — and they are going to be burning coal, and we have a cleaner, better product — why wouldn’t we try to get that to them?” he asked.
COAL DUST, TRAIN TRAFFIC ARE KEY CONCERNS
Environmental groups in Washington can think of plenty of reasons. Among their top concerns: traffic backups at train tracks, pollution from diesel exhaust emitted by passing trains, and dust blowing off uncovered loads of coal.
The coal terminal proposals would dramatically increase train traffic throughout Washington. The Cherry Point terminal, if it’s built, would result in up to 18 more train trips daily, or nine roundtrips each day, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At Longview, the proposed coal terminal will eventually add 16 train trips daily, or eight more trains making round trips each day, the state Department of Ecology says.
16 Added train trips per day that would result from Longview coal terminal
18 Added train trips per day that could result from Cherry Point coal terminal
At least one researcher has found that pollution from those trains — both in the form of diesel exhaust and in coal dust that blows off the uncovered train cars — increases fine-particulate matter pollution in areas close to tracks.
“Those are the ones that can get inside a person’s lungs,” said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at the University of Washington Bothell, who has been studying coal trains’ effect on air quality. “Larger particles don’t make it inside our lungs.”
A paper published by Jaffe and his team last year found that, if train traffic through Seattle increased by 50 percent, that could cause the particulate matter in the air to exceed national air quality standards for some residents.
The Cherry Point terminal proposal would increase coal train traffic through Seattle by more than that, according to a study commissioned by the city — adding eight daily trips.
Jaffe’s paper, published in the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research, said that the projected air quality decrease in Seattle would be linked mainly to diesel exhaust from the trains. But his team also found that after coal trains passed by, there was an increased presence of particles in the air that could be identified as aerosolized coal dust.
The U.S. has made great strides in ending our domestic reliance on coal. But now we’re just going to ship it overseas and push it into someone else’s community?
Cesia Kearns, co-director of the Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal campaign
Jaffe said that a new report his team is publishing in the next few days suggests that coal dust is an even greater problem when trains are traveling at higher speeds through less populated areas, such as the Columbia River Gorge.
That remains the case even though companies are spraying loads of coal with a substance intended to prevent coal particles from escaping during transit. Jaffe compared the product to hairspray.
“They are coating the coal with a surfactant, and it does help — but there is still an issue,” Jaffe said.
POTENTIAL TO REDUCE U.S. COAL USE?
Beyond the effects on local air and water quality, environmental groups like the Sierra Club oppose building the export terminals partly because of the message they would send to other nations.
While the United States used to derive more than half its energy from burning coal, that number has slipped to about 35 percent in recent years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Meanwhile, use of natural gas to produce electricity in the United States has increased, with 2015 marking the first time natural gas surpassed coal in its share of U.S. electricity generation.
“The U.S. has made great strides in ending our domestic reliance on coal,” said Cesia Kearns, co-director of the Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal campaign. “But now we’re just going to ship it overseas and push it into someone else’s community?”
A Stanford economist, however, argues that the United States exporting more coal overseas would cause U.S. coal use to further decline, thereby reducing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
What happens is that China is going to essentially consume as much coal as it takes to keep the lights on in China.
Frank Wolak, Stanford economics professor and director of Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development
Frank Wolak, a professor of economics who leads Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, said China has a fixed demand for coal for the foreseeable future, since it has recently built coal-fired power plants that will last for 30 or 35 years.
“What happens is that China is going to essentially consume as much coal as it takes to keep the lights on in China,” Wolak said, adding that “the world is awash in coal” that China can buy, even if the United States chooses to opt out of the coal export business.
Conversely, Wolak said if the United States exports more coal overseas, it will increase global demand for American coal. That in turn will drive up coal prices domestically, and that price increase will prompt the United States to move further away from using coal as an energy source, he said.
On a philosophical level, Wolak also questioned whether it would be fair for the United States and other developed nations to pressure China to move away from coal now, after those countries have already benefited from their own coal-fired industrial revolutions.
The United States and other countries produced plenty of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning coal over the years, and only recently have made steps to curb CO2 emissions, Wolak said.
“To say that, well, we got our CO2 out first, now you can’t have any CO2 — I have trouble with that,” Wolak said.
We’re not actually looking at what happens in Asia, but it’s more the fact that greenhouse gases — wherever they’re burned — can impact Washington state.
Diane Butorac, regional Planner for state Department of Ecology’s southwest regional office
“...We definitely want to address the climate challenge, but we also want people to have heat and food and all sorts of stuff,” he said.
The state’s environmental reviews of the coal terminal proposals will primarily assess how the projects would affect local communities. But the environmental impact statements will also evaluate some of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from coal being burned overseas, Ecology officials said.
“We’re not actually looking at what happens in Asia, but it’s more the fact that greenhouse gases — wherever they’re burned — can impact Washington state,” said Diane Butorac, a regional planner for the state Department of Ecology.
“We would look at the impacts on Washington state as a result of those emissions, regardless of where they are burned.”