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Coal Exports from the Pacific Northwest

As the Pacific Northwest works to shut down its last two coal-fired power plants, the region finds itself at an energy crossroads: will it become a world leader in green energy, efficiency, and innovation—or a global warming exporter?

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Update: On March 16, 2011, Millennium Bulk Logistics withdrew its permit application for a proposed mega-terminal for coal export to Asia in Longview, WA, following several weeks of reports about the company’s deception around the true size of the project. Read more details on our blog, unEARTHED.

A revolution based on innovation and environmental awareness is forcing out coal-fired power generation in the Pacific Northwest—but the coal industry isn’t about to be dethroned entirely.

The industry has heady new plans to use West Coast ports for exporting coal to Asia. Aside from shipping global warming pollution from our shores to Asia, the scheme helps grow the market for coal wrenched from the ground at great environmental cost.

A division of Australia’s Ambre Energy has proposed a plan to export 5.7 million tons of U.S. coal from Longview, Washington on the Columbia River. In December 2010, Earthjustice and a coalition of allies filed an appeal to prevent construction of the terminal.

But that is just the start of Big Coal’s ambitions. The industry plans facilities up and down the West Coast that would eventually export tens of millions of tons per year. Any deepwater channel port with a heavy rail connection is a potential site.

While the Port of Tacoma, recently rejected a proposed coal-loading facility, the Longview project recently got a green light by a small county commission, and it is that approval that Earthjustice is appealing. Joined in that appeal are the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Columbia Riverkeeper and Climate Solutions.

The project would harm salmon and other fish, and would greatly increase the state’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

A proposed port facility is designed to export coal from the Powder River basin in Montana and Wyoming. Ironically, the proposal comes even as the region is working to shut down its last two coal-fired power plants (Boardman in Oregon and TransAlta in Washington) because of their global warming impacts.

Burning U.S. coal in Asia will come back to us as air pollution, climate disruption and toxic pollution including mercury which ends up in the ocean and the bodies of fish we feed our children, like tuna.

In late 2010, faith, labor, community and environmental groups, joined hands to say we can have better alternatives to coal exports. Activists fear the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as an environmental leader is under attack.

For the community of Longview, the positive economic benefit of being a coal way station is unclear.

The plan does not create many jobs; unloading coal from trains to ships is done by large machines with few operators. Additionally:

  • Trains will generate huge volumes of toxic dust as they travel all the way from the interior west, tying up rail lines and blocking traffic.
  • Salmon lovers worry that dredging the Columbia River will impact migrating salmon already facing serious environmental threats.
  • Port facilities would be given over filthy industrial sites with enormous piles of coal and constant noise and dust.
  • The disruption to communities will be immense: imagine mile-long trains rumbling through small communities many times a day, spewing coal dust.

Instead of sacrificing our shorelines to dirty trains and mountains of coal, we could be cleaning them up: greenfields can be preserved for recreation and wildlife, existing structures can be used for light industrial use and new destinations can be created for retail and tourism.

The Pacific Northwest now finds itself at an energy crossroads.

Will the region become a world leader in green energy, efficiency, and innovation—or a global warming exporter?

Office:  Northwest
Program Area:  Climate and Energy
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