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Energy | Environment

American Coal Companies Look To The Northwest For Export Opportunities

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This is the second in a two-part series.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Kevin Ranker points his motorboat towards Cherry Point and guns the engine.

“It’s gonna be a bumpy one!” the state senator from the San Juan Islands exclaims, gleefully tackling the waves on our way out.

As we come around a bend in the Coast we can see an oil refinery and an aluminum smelter off in the distance. Between them is a long stretch of tree-lined waterfront.

This is the proposed site of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, one of five possible coal export terminals being considered for construction in Washington and Oregon as American coal companies look to the Northwest as the fastest way to bring their product from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to Asian markets.

(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)

The Gateway Pacific Terminal would be big enough to handle 48 million tons of coal per year. That’s equivalent to almost half the amount of coal the entire country exports right now.

Almost 500 ships a year would be passing through this waterway on their way to and from Asia.

As an islander, Ranker spends a lot of time on the waters of Puget Sound. So do many of his constituents. He shares their fear that all of these ships moving back and forth will increase the likelihood of an oil spill.

“I’m hearing a lot of concern,” he says, deftly avoiding a massive floating log. “Mostly from people who are fearful of what this will mean. We’re going to see an environmental and an economic impact that will devastate Washington State.”

Each of these ships carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel.

Ranker looks across the water at an oil tanker parked at the refinery.

Cherry Point, Wash. Locator Map

“If we dramatically increase the vessel traffic then we need to dramatically increase the oil spill preparedness and response program and who’s going to pay for that increase?”

That’s one of the questions at the core of the debate over coal exports in the Northwest: Who picks up the tab? Ranker’s not getting an answer to that question.

The coal companies have been very good to Wyoming. They’ve funneled millions of tax dollars into state and county coffers to build things like recreational centers, schools and other public projects.

But that’s money for Wyoming. Those companies aren’t based in Washington or Oregon, so the Northwest states won’t see direct tax revenue from them.

Craig Cole, a spokesman for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, argues that economic activity anywhere in the country is good for the entire country.

“I guess you could say that building cars in Detroit doesn’t help us but yes it does because it strengthens the national economy and we’re a part of that,” he says.

If all five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon are built, they could create hundreds of long-term jobs at the ports, with several thousand workers temporarily employed during the initial phases of construction.

The Association of Washington Businesses as well as some of the most powerful labor unions in Oregon and Washington have come out in support of coal exports.

Craig Cole says that’s no surprise in this economy. “I think if we’ve got something that can fuel jobs, rebalance trade, we should take advantage of it. Right now we need to sell whatever we can sell, whether it’s a natural resource based commodity or whether it’s high tech.”

Environmental groups say the full cost of exporting coal through the Northwest outweighs the economic benefits. Increased train traffic will mean more air pollution, dust, noise and traffic disturbances in communities along the rail lines.

And that’s to say nothing of the effect of burning the coal at the end of its voyage to Asia.

“Coal is the single largest source of CO2 emissions, which makes it really the heart of the climate problem,” says Richard Morse, a coal expert at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.

Morse says global coal consumption is expected to rise by 65 percent in the next 20 years or so.

Hear the full interview with Richard Morse

Right now Asia uses 5 billion tons of coal every year.

Putting our coal into perspective: the amount of Powder River Basin coal that could be exported through the Northwest would be about 2 percent of that.

“Are the emissions that come out of the West Coast if they export that coal going to make or break climate change? No.” But, Morse adds, “Is how we deal with that going to set an important precedent for other fuels and future more comprehensive policy? Yes it is.”

Right now the U.S. doesn’t have a national policy in place to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That means coal can’t legally be treated differently than any other commodity, despite it’s potential to change the global climate.

Hear a full interview with Washington Congressman Jim McDermott

Washington Congressman Jim McDermott recently introduced a bill that would put a tax on the extraction of coal. The revenue would go towards the national debt and towards helping communities - like those in his home state - deal with the impacts of increased train and ship traffic from moving coal.

It’ll be a tough bill to pass. For now, the opposing sides of the coal export debate in the Northwest are squaring off as the two largest proposed terminals begin the environmental review process this fall.

This is the second of two parts. Wednesday: What Asian coal demand means for Wyoming.

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