Saying No to Coal in the Pacific Northwest

Citizens fight Plans to Use Northwest Ports to Export Powder River Basin Coal to Asian Markets

Picture this. It took years to accomplish, but your state legislature, even the conservative wing, overwhelmingly passed a law that will shut down the single remaining coal plant in the state. To top it off, three proposed coal-fired power plants have also been shelved. It looked like coal was soon to be a relic of your state’s past, until plans to use your state as a coal export hub began to surface.

Photo by Doc Searls The Powder River Basin supplies about 40 percent of coal used in the United States. But as dirty coal declines in
popularity at home, US companies are looking to ship it over to Asia.

This scenario is all too real for the citizens of Washington State.

In recent years residents of the Evergreen state fought to close the Centralia Power Plant, they worked to nix plans for three proposed coal stations and now they refuse to back down from fighting numerous plans to ship coal from ports along their state’s scenic Pacific coastline.

To be sure, those opposing coal in the United States are winning, Proposed plants are being abandoned and old power stations are being shuttered. Nevertheless, coal mining, in some cases with the generous help of the Obama Administration, continues to expand across the Western landscape. And one can rest assured that mining companies are not about to give up on finding markets to sell off their vast coal supplies.

As such, China seems to be the perfect candidate as the country continues to build two mid-size power plants every week. China certainly has plenty of its own coal to burn for the time being, but according to a report by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) released in 2007, China may reach maximum production by 2015. For a country that wants to grow its economy at virtually any cost, it is already seeking to import massive amounts of coal, which is mainly producing the power to manufacture steel.

Despite the fact that there is a dearth of coal export facilities on the West Coast – only one in Vancouver, B.C. — U.S. coal exports to Asia during the first six months of 2010 increased nearly 400 percent compared to the entire year of 2009. This mini-boom is one of the only bright lights for coal companies like Peabody and Arch Coal that operate in the resource-rich Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

This is where Northwest states of Washington and even Oregon are coming into play for coal barons. If US mining companies cannot find ports to ship their coal to markets overseas from, the outlook for their industry is a bit bleak. The problem the coal industry is encountering, however, is it seems to be messing with the wrong group of people.

There are two big proposals to ship coal out of the port cities of Longview and Ferndale in Washington state, but it appears that locals here are none too pleased with the prospect of trainloads of coal roaring through their towns only to be shipped off to fuel Asian economies. These folks have asserted, whether by storming town hall meetings, or writing ravaging op-eds in local papers, that they do not want coal burned or transported through their state.

Lawsuits over the proposals have been filed and the public has reacted to the port developments with general disdain. In the case of Longview, port developer Millennium Bulk was forced to resubmit their proposal after the company was caught fabricating its true intentions. Up in Bellingham, which is the largest city near the proposed Ferndale’s Gateway Terminal, the mayor and health professionals have come out in opposition because of concerns over coal dust impacts on health and coal’s contribution to climate change.

So while the decapitated mountains of Appalachia continue to be the home base for the anti-coal movement in the U.S., the fight is indeed national in scope. Washington was one of the first to be targeted for coal exports, but Oregon and potentially California terminals are being eyed for future developments.

The message is now clear to those of us who live on the West Coast and want to put the breaks on global warming: Even if your state no longer accepts the burning of dirty coal as a viable way to produce energy, that does not mean coal companies are writing your state off. So be warned.

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and researcher for CoalSwarm, a project of the Earth Island Institute. His work appears regularly in Alternet, truthout and other independent independent news sites. He can be found on the web at GreenMuckraker.com

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