Fighting West Coast Coal Exports

“There’s no way they’re going to run coal trains through the city of Seattle. There aren’t enough police to keep those tracks cleared day after day after day.” As reported by The Seattle Times, environmental activist Bill McKibben headlined a protest in Seattle on September 21, 2013, vowing to block coal export terminals on the West Coast.

Coal mining companies have proposed to build several export terminals in Washington and Oregon to ship coal to energy hungry countries in Asia. However, the projects have run into fierce local opposition. Plans to build six terminals in the Pacific Northwest have been scaled back to only three.

Bill McKibben

Trains would carry coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to the coast in Washington and Oregon. The trains would consist of 150 uncovered cars full of coal, stretching about 1.5 miles, with as many as nine trains making the trip each day. Two export facilities in Washington would ship a combined 90 million tons of coal each year, with an Oregon port shipping an additional 9 million tons annually. Local communities are concerned about increased traffic, accidents, and pollution blown off from the uncovered cars.

Facing an increasingly unprofitable market within the United States, coal companies are looking overseas, but would need new export terminals on the West Coast. Domestic demand for coal will likely undergo a long period of decline. The Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed greenhouse gas limits on new power plants on September 20. The proposed rules would effectively make building a new coal-fired power plant impossible, without costly carbon capture technology. The EPA is expected to come out with much more significant regulations on existing power plants next year.

Coal companies are trying to reach countries like China, which alone consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined.

Yet, there are signs that even the rapidly growing Chinese market for coal may be plateauing. According to a July 2013 report from Goldman Sachs, coal consumption in China will only grow by one percent a year from 2013-2017. That is a significant decline from the seven percent annual growth rate over the last five years. The recent slowdown in the Chinese economy is partly to blame, however. China is also making large investments in renewable energy and even hopes to kick off a greenhouse gas emissions trading program in 2015. These trends are colluding to close the window on the profitability of coal exports, according to Goldman Sachs.

In Washington State, local opposition is the most immediate threat to the coal export terminals. Washington environmental groups and indigenous tribes have organized against the projects. Political leaders are also hardening against exports – the September 21 rally featured

Mayor Mike McGinn

, who has made his opposition to coal exports a central pillar of his reelection campaign.

Opponents of coal export terminals scored a significant victory in July when the Washington Department of Ecology issued a wide range of requirements for the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the projects. The EIS will include the impact of coal exports on global climate change, a higher level of scrutiny than the coal companies wanted. In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided not to include climate change impacts.

The combination of environmental regulations, slowing demand for coal overseas, and strong opposition against coal exports in the Pacific Northwest have already scuttled half of the proposed six projects – and may yet kill off the remaining three.