The gray waters of the Puget Sound are rough and scattered with white caps on this cold and wet October morning. The air is pungent with the low-tide smells of seaweed and salt. Schools of chum salmon are migrating from the Pacific into the Nooksack River to spawn. A handful of Lummi fishermen in small weather-beaten boats brave the driving rain and frigid gusts to reel in their nets, harvesting the fish as their ancestors have done for 175 generations.
For more than 3,400 years these waters on Washington State’s coast have sustained the Lummi People, also called Lhaq’temish – People of the Sea. The cultural survival of the Lummi has been inextricably tied to the annual salmon migrations.
Salmon are a central motif in the ceremonial totems that Lummi sculptor Jewell James carves out of cedar. His work is visible throughout the Lummi Reservation as well as in major cities across the US, including New York and Washington DC (to whose people he donated healing totems after the September 11 terrorist attacks). While James continues to carve salmon motifs, he no longer fishes. He’s concerned about the future of salmon runs and wants to preserve the resource for tribal members without other economic options. “We had to make sure every man, woman, and child had something. Mother Earth gave to us, so we made sure no one went hungry,” he said as he watched his brother-in-law unload jars of fresh salmon at his home later in the day.
The Lummi have traditionally kept a low profile and declined to get openly involved in the political controversies of their white neighbors. But now tribe members are taking center stage in a fight that they believe is about the very existence of the fish that is so central to their traditional way of life. The battle is over a proposal to build a coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, an industrial port area just north of the town of Bellingham and adjacent to the Lummi Reservation.
If built, the port would be the largest coal-export terminal on the West Coast, sending up to 48 million tons of coal to Asia annually. Cherry Point is a sacred Lummi burial ground. The Lummi are concerned that transporting such massive loads of coal over land and water would further imperil salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest and irrevocably damage their religious and sacred sites. “They say they are going to mitigate, but how do you mitigate driving a piling through a grave site, or bulldozing over someone’s ancestors?” asks tribal member G.I. James.
On September 21 the Lummi Nation broke its silence about the Cherry Point coal-export plan. The tribe had announced a few days earlier that it would hold a water ceremony on the rocky beach where the port would be built. But no one expected the ceremony, a solemn traditional event to honor the water that gives them life, to have a political tone. So anti-port activists were surprised and thrilled to see tribe members brandishing “No Coal” signs at the event. The Lummi also burned a large mock check stamped with the words, “Non-Negotiable.” The tribe’s chairman, Cliff Cultee, urged his people to work with other tribes in the Northwest facing similar threats from other proposed coal-export terminals in the region. “Don’t just send [the terminals] someplace else,” he told them.
The Cherry Point terminal is one of five coal-export hubs being planned in Oregon and Washington by some of the nation’s largest coal, transport, and investment companies that want to export coal to Asia.
The United States’ ample coal reserves – which at current usage rates could last another 235 years – were once key to the nation’s domestic energy mix, providing an energy source that was safe from geopolitical tensions. But now the domestic market is drying up. Tighter federal regulations on power plants, a growing grassroots movement against coal mining and coal power, and an abundant supply of natural gas have led power companies across the country to cut back on coal use. As of October, plans for 170 new coal plants in the US had been scrapped and 124 existing coal-fired plants were scheduled for retirement. Between July 2011 and 2012, only 38 percent of power in the US was coal-generated, a sharp drop from 2005, when nearly 50 percent of US power came from coal.
The coal industry, which is loath to leave the country’s coal reserves untapped, is hoping that shipping millions of tons of coal to power-hungry Asia will be its financial salvation. “Right now the domestic market for coal is so soft and the projections are so negative that coal companies have no choice but to try to export the coal if they want to make any money at all,” says Thomas Power, a University of Montana resource economist.
American coal is currently exported primarily from East Coast ports. Coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is shipped from ports in British Columbia, Canada, including one just north of the Lummi Nation. The new terminals along the Washington-Oregon coast would transport Powder River Basin exports.
The Cherry Point terminal is being proposed by global shipping company SSA Marine, and the company has already signed coal-supply contracts with Peabody Energy. Three more coal terminals are planned along the Columbia River. The Australian coal-transport company Ambre Energy and Arch Coal want to ship 44 million tons annually from Longview, an industrial port in Washington. Ambre also wants to move coal by barge down the Columbia River from the Port of Morrow to Port Westward in Oregon, from where it would ship out 8.8 million tons of the fuel to Asia. Texas-based conglomerate Kinder Morgan plans to build an export facility at Port Westward that would handle up to 30 million tons of coal, but its project is currently stalled because the company is facing problems leasing land. Another terminal is being considered at Coos Bay in Oregon. If all five ports get built, it could mean up to 150 million tons of coal exported each year from the Pacific Northwest.
Along with the push for coal exports, plans are also afoot for at least two terminals in Washington and Oregon that would export natural gas, thanks to the fracking boom. US natural gas exports have increased significantly in the past six years – rising from 724,000 million cubic feet in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration. Most of this is sent out via pipeline to Canada and Mexico. There is only one shipping terminal in Nikiski, Alaska that exports liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tankers. But a July 2012 report by the US Department of Energy lists proposals for seven new LNG export terminals, including two in the Pacific Northwest – at Coos Bay, OR and Astoria, WA. If all seven terminals are built, the US would have the second-largest gas export capacity in the world, after Qatar.
If the energy industry’s plans for these massive coal and natural gas exports go through, the US could, for the first time in generations, become a major energy exporter.
While coal and natural gas supporters say increasing exports will boost the US economy and create jobs, environmentalists argue that fossil fuel extraction and use contributes to pollution and global warming. Cutting fossil fuel use at home but shipping it abroad doesn’t make sense since it would just lead to increased global greenhouse gas emissions, further contributing to climate change, they argue. “Exporting 140 million tons [of coal] a year would produce roughly 280 million tons of CO2 per year,” says a 2011 report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a regional network of grassroots community organizations.
Proponents of energy exports say growing economies like China and India will burn as much coal as they want regardless, so it might as well be Powder River Basin coal, which is relatively low in sulfur. “These countries will get the coal from another source or [US coal] will be exported through Canada or the Gulf, so opposing coal exports from the Pacific Northwest won’t really do anything to reduce coal demand internationally,” says Liz Fuller, a publicist for Ambre Energy’s Port Westward project. But economist Thomas Power says such arguments are simplistic. Supplying these countries with cheap coal will encourage them to keep constructing coal-fired power plants rather than investing in cleaner options, he says.
A boom in coal exports from the Pacific Northwest could have wide-ranging impacts at home, too. It would mean much more mining in the Powder River Basin, further degrading the environment and creating serious public health impacts for area residents. It would mean significant railroad expansions to accommodate increased coal shipments from the mines to the export terminals. It would mean small towns split by rail lines, tons of toxic coal dust sprayed across homes and ecosystems along 4,000 miles of rail, and significant increases in diesel emissions linked to cancer and heart disease. More ships navigating rugged coastlines would mean a higher risk of accidents. Also, increased emissions from coal burning in Asia would have a direct impact on the Pacific Northwest: Several studies have shown that the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean blows toxic emissions, including particulate matter, mercury, and nitrogen oxides, from Asia. The expansion could also impact the Pacific Northwest’s green, outdoorsy “brand” that draws scores of tourists and clean-tech companies to the region.
So it’s not surprising that environmentalists and residents along the proposed coal routes are fighting the planned export terminals.
Julie Trimingham, a Bellingham filmmaker, founded the website Coal Train Facts because she wants her three-year-old son to grow up in a clean and safe climate, and she wants the same opportunity for the kids of “my doppelganger in China.” Don McDermott, a retired railroad fraud prevention executive and owner of a Columbia River Gorge vineyard, fears coal dust coating his grapes. In the small town of Rainier, WA, where rail tracks run right down the middle of Main Street, industrial designer Duncan MacKenzie fears if a coal train passes through every hour, Rainier will not be the kind of place future generations will want to call home. “We know about the trains and we live with it, but that’s once or twice a day, not every time you turn around,” he says.
There are no details yet on the exact routes coal shipments would take from the Powder River Basin, but much of it will likely be delivered on existing railroad tracks. Coal trains would run through several cities, including Billings, Spokane, Portland, Seattle, and many small towns in the region. Spokane and Billings could see roughly 60 coal trains a day, a recent study estimates.
Each of the terminal proposals still need a multitude of environmental permits from state, local, and federal agencies, and analysts say it is highly unlikely all five ports will be built. But opponents say they need to mobilize now, especially since companies are trying their best to avoid public scrutiny. As proof, they point to Ambre Energy.
The company initially announced plans to export five million tons of coal a year from Longview. But internal company emails obtained by the environmental law firm Earthjustice revealed Ambre was trying to hide its true plans to ship up to 60 million tons of coal from Longview. Ambre was ultimately forced to withdraw its misleading permit application and file another, seeking to export 44 million tons a year.
“I felt so violated. How can you go and trust a company after they’ve done something like that?” asks Gayle Kiser, cofounder of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, a Longview citizens group. Kiser, who moved to her husband’s family farm in Longview 18 years ago with plans to “do pottery and other retiree things,” has been fighting big energy companies for years. In 2005, a natural gas company wanted to build a pipeline through their farm for a new LNG terminal proposed at Bradwood Landing near Astoria, OR. In 2010 the Bradwood plan was killed, and Kiser celebrated by drinking tequila in a special cup she made for the occasion. But she didn’t have long to enjoy the victory. Last winter Kiser got a call about Ambre’s damning emails and thus began another battle that she figures will last a long time.
Critics of the export terminals say the long-term economic benefit of shipping coal and gas overseas isn’t going to be all that great. They say increased mining is especially offensive given that coal companies – including foreign ones – pay very little to extract coal on federal land. In June, for instance, Peabody leased the rights to 271 million tons of coal in Powder River Basin at $1.10 a ton; the market rate is closer to $2.79 a ton. A recent Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report found that taxpayers are set to lose $28.9 billion over the next 30 years because of such deals. “US taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the expansion of other nations, including China, with underpriced coal that is being exported,” report author Tom Sanzillo, a former New York state deputy comptroller, said in a statement.
“We are for economic development. But not on the backs of salmon.”
The idea that there’s much money to be made shipping fossil fuels to Asia is a gamble. Energy exports are subject to constantly shifting market forces such as the prices offered by competitors in other countries, the cost of fuel for transport, the cost of regulatory compliance and infrastructure construction in the US, and the decisions importing countries make about their energy mix. The demand for LNG exports, for instance, could shrink even as export terminals are being built because hydraulic fracturing is gaining traction in Europe, a major importer of US gas, and that in turn means less demand for US gas in the future.
Steady Asian demand for foreign coal is also uncertain. Last year India signed deals to buy six to nine million tons of Appalachian coal annually for the next 25 years, but there’s growing resistance to coal use across the South Asian nation. “We’re seeing a lot of opposition to new power plants. Farmers are being displaced, fishermen are seeing the coastal resources destroyed by coal plants, forests are being cleared for mines,” says Ashish Fernandes, a Greenpeace organizer in India. “I think those connections are being made. There’s this idea that ‘Oh, India needs coal.’ But a lot of Indians are saying, ‘No we don’t want coal, whether it’s mined in the US or in our backyards.’”
New data shows that China’s demand for thermal coal (used to generate power) has slowed down because of its increasing investments in low-emissions solar, hydro, wind, and nuclear energy. Noted Australian economist Ross Garnaut reported in November that coal’s share of energy production in China was down from 85 percent in February to 73 percent in August, while non-fossil-fuel sources supplied a record 27 percent of the country’s electricity in August. US coal exports to China could also ultimately become uneconomical as China improves its rail infrastructure to facilitate transport of domestic coal, says Montana economist Thomas Power. But in typical boom and bust fashion, this could happen after much harm is already done to US ecosystems and communities.
In September, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an organization of more than 50 Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, including the Lummi, passed a resolution demanding a “comprehensive” environmental impact statement on the cumulative effects of all five coal export proposals, “including their direct and indirect impacts on tribal cultural resources, treaty rights, and interests,” instead of piecemeal, project-by-project statements.
The tribes’ chief concerns include the impact of coal dust along the rail routes and on crucial fishing areas that they have used for centuries. “Along the Columbia River it’s cliff, highway, railroad, then river. Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape,” Paul Lumley, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in a statement. “If we cannot escape, neither will the coal.”
Tribal opposition could well prove to be the strongest roadblock to the coal-export terminals since it’s backed by historic treaties that protect their fishing rights and sacred sites.
“There are a lot of resonances with the history of extraction and its effects on tribes,” says Sarah Krakoff, a University of Colorado Law School professor specializing in Native American and natural resource law. “In the modern era we’ve tried to make sure that at least the tribes themselves are benefiting from any extraction on their reservations. But in this case they would not be benefitting at all economically yet they would still be bearing the brunt of the burden,” she says. “It’s an old story, but the good news for tribes in the Northwest is they do have a lot of political and legal power today. Their clear and united opposition at this stage will make constructing the terminals a longer shot.”
The Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is considering legal action against the coal terminals. “We are for economic and sustainable development,” says commission policy analyst Julie Carter. “But not on the backs of salmon.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist and author who focuses on energy, the environment, and labor issues. Find out more about her at www.karilydersen.com.
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