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Aussie Energy Co. Buys Into U.S. Coal Mines

“This is a good company from Australia who is well funded, well banked, and they have bought a mine in Montana and have every intention to ship it to Asia. It's a great story.”
- Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Yes, governor, it’s a great story. It’s a story of air pollution, global warming and ruined landscapes. It’s a story of hazardous waste, poisoned water and destroyed communities. It’s a story of a 19th century technology wearing out its welcome well into the 21st century.

It’s the story of coal.

The Australian company Schweitzer refers to is Ambre Energy, which recently announced its purchase of a significant stake in several Wyoming and Montana coal mines. Ambre bought a 50-percent interest in southern Montana’s Decker Coal Company and in Wyoming’s Black Butte Coal Company, as well as buying interest in other coal reserves in the region. The move is especially interesting as Ambre is vying to establish the West Coast’s first coal export terminal in Longview, Wash., which would ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia. Ambre is also exploring another site further up the Columbia River which would ship coal by barge.

Currently, there is no coal export terminal on the West Coast of the United States; small amounts of coal are shipped from Alaska and a coal export terminal operates in southern British Columbia. But with China becoming a net importer of coal in the past few years, coal companies desire to build shipping terminals in a variety of locations in Washington and Oregon to send coal mined in America to Asia, where it will be burned in poorly regulated coal-fired power plants. American coal burned in Asia will generate significant air pollution—a great deal of which blows back to the West Coast—and exacerbate global warming.

Ambre’s first attempt at establishing a coal export terminal at the Longview site failed in the most public of ways. The company had begun working with Cowlitz County lawmakers in late 2010 to quietly secure permits to build the new shipping terminal on the banks of the Columbia River.

However, when Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman learned of the proposed project and started investigating, he uncovered a few interesting facts. Perhaps most interesting was that while Ambre had told Cowlitz County that it planned to ship 5 million tons of coal annually from the Longview terminal, internally the company was secretly discussing plans to dramatically expand the terminal’s capacity to 80 million annual tons once the facility was up and running. In essence, it was the classic bait-and-switch: the company planned to sell the county on a smaller version of the project while a massive expansion was quietly waiting in the wings.

Ambre’s deception was widely reported in the media and outrage over the company’s actions ultimately forced it to cancel its permit application to build the terminal. While Hasselman’s sleuth work was critical in ending Ambre’s first try at establishing a shipping terminal in Longview, the company appears to be preparing for a second attempt at securing the necessary permits and studies to complete the project in 2012. The company’s purchase of Montana and Wyoming coal mines further supports the notion that there will be another round in the battle.

“We will fight to protect the region’s environment and the community of Longview if Ambre tries to build a dirty, polluting coal terminal there,” said Hasselman. “Washingtonians want a clean energy future, not more dirty and dangerous coal.”

Tags:  Air, Coal, coal exports