There’s a lot of coal in the middle of the United States, and China wants it.
That puts the Northwest squarely in the middle of supply and demand. Train routes would take coal from deposits like the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to shipping terminals along the West Coast.
From there, the coal could be delivered by boat to Asian markets.
EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn turns to Eric de Place, a researcher with Sightline Institute –- a think tank in Seattle.
EarthFix: I’ve heard the Powder River Basin in Wyoming described as the “Saudi Arabia of coal”. What does that mean for how much coal is going to be coming out of Northwestern ports essentially?
Eric de Place: Right. It’s the most productive coal region in the U.S. and in North America these days. What we’re looking at is about 100 million tons of coal proposed to be moved through the Pacific Northwest and then out of the terminals — and it possibly could be more than 100 million tons depending on how you do the numbers.
EarthFix: How does coal move through the region right now?
Eric de Place: There are small amounts of coal that are moving through the region right now. All of it or virtually all of it is moving on rail cars. So it’s mined in eastern Montana or Wyoming, and then it’s taken by rail through Montana and northern Idaho to Spokane, and then it moves down to the Columbia River Gorge, travels through the gorge, and then, depending on its destination, it either stops at the Centralia coal plant or it continues on north across the Canadian border. So that means it travels up the I-5 corridor, crosses the border and is then shipped out of the West Shore Terminal to Asia. That’s a very small amount of coal that does that, but some.
EarthFix: I’m picturing the I-5 corridor being even more congested than it already is with car traffic and truck traffic and …
Eric de Place: It’s reasonable to think that we’ll see considerably greater congestion in the I-5 corridor, and particularly the problem is very acute once you get north of Everett because north of Everett, we don’t have a double-tracked line. We have a single track that runs from Everett all the way to the Canadian border. There are sidings and some other things but, essentially, that stretch of rail line is the most congested, the toughest to move freight on, and it would be very difficult to imagine how you would accommodate 18 roundtrip trains a day — which is what a coal terminal at Cherry Point would be looking at.
EarthFix: So, there are communities that already have coal trains going through them every day. What would an increase heading toward Asian markets from the Powder River basin mean for those communities?
(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Click image to see interactive map.)_
Eric de Place: What an increase would look like is more congested traffic and more time spent at rail crossings or places where roads cross rails. Depending on how you run the numbers and depending on what assumptions you make about the length of trains and the speed at which they’re moving, we could be looking at closures at those rail crossing of five to 10 or more minutes every hour for most of the day to serve just those new coal trains, not counting the existing trains.
The history of public financing of rail suggests strongly that the public will end up paying the lion’s share of that tab –- for new safety improvements, new crossings, new signalization, new siding. There are a variety of things you can do to address congestion and protect public safety, but almost all of it ends up falling on the taxpayer.
EarthFix: And how about environmental impacts of those trains?
Eric de Place: The environmental impacts of the coal trains are dwarfed by the environmental impacts of the coal itself once it’s burned. If you were to focus just on the environmental impacts of the coal trains, one of the biggest environmental threats from coal trains is actually the diesel that’s used to power the locomotives. Diesel is a well-known human health threat. It’s been documented to have adverse effects on communities near rail yards and railways. That’s been documented in Spokane and lots of other places. In addition to the pollution from the diesel that powers the trains, one of the biggest concerns that communities have is coal dust. Coal dust has the tendency, in the wrong conditions, to sort of drift off the top of the coal cars as they’re passing through.
EarthFix: Tell me more about what this dust is. Is it like secondhand smoke? How would you compare it in terms of environmental health impacts?
Eric de Place: There’s a mountain of research about the effect of coal dust on human health but almost all of that research is concerned with occupational exposure to coal dust. So if you were in a mine or handling coal at, let’s say, an export terminal, and you were breathing in a lot of coal dust or (had) skin contact, that is clearly a serious health threat. There’s really no debate about that. Where the questions are is whether there’s any danger to residents or other people who may be exposed to coal dust in an incidental fashion blowing off a terminal or a railcar that passes through their community over and over again. The truth is, we don’t know. We know that there is bad stuff in there, and it contains heavy metals and other pollutants, and we know that those contaminants are bad for human health, but it’s a lot harder to draw a line and say, definitively, that the coal dust blowing off a train — that that has an adverse human health impact.
EarthFix: What can be done about that? Could companies just cover the trains?
Eric de Place: Yeah. There are a number of ways you could try to treat coal dust. You can theoretically cover the coal trains. You can spray surfactants on top of them that hold the coal in place. The coal shippers, the companies are reluctant to do that because it costs quite a bit of money. The coal itself is actually not worth very much, so anything you do to treat it or protect it from being exposed costs enough money, possibly enough to make it not economical to ship it in the first place.
EarthFix: Ok Eric, look in your researcher’s crystal ball here. If terminals are built along the Northwest coast, what is this region going to look like to you in five, 10, 20 years?
Eric de Place: It’s a profound question. There are really two possible worlds for the Northwest if the coal terminals get built. One is they’ll ship coal for a couple of years and then they’ll go bust. Coal is a highly volatile commodity. There’s no guarantee that the Asian demand is going to be there in five to 10 years, and it’s going to take several years to get these terminals built and operational. There’s good argument to believe that by the time they’re actually running, they could be running out of a market by then. China and India both have ample supplies of domestic coal and lots of other energy sources to boot, so I can imagine that what we’re looking at five to 10 years from now is wasted port space and surplus machinery and folks out of work.
The other possible future, depending on global economics and energy consumption, is that we’re moving 100 million tons of coal out of Washington state and another 30 million tons of coal out of Oregon and in that case you’ve got nasty black coal dust from Tacoma all the way to Bellingham. We’d have coal dust blowing off huge export terminals on the Columbia River, huge export terminals on North Puget Sound. And then, in addition to that, we’d have the largest vessels in the world moving coal through the San Juan Islands and out across the Pacific and smaller cape-size vessels moving coal out the mouth of the Columbia River from the Port of St. Helens in Oregon and the Port of Longview in Washington.
In any of those scenarios, I think you’re looking at a sort of degraded Northwest that doesn’t look like the kind of Northwest we’ve seen in the past. The region has not been a heavily fossil-fuel-dependent economy ever in its history and so I think you’d see a region that formerly never had any connection to coal, never been touched by big coal, all of a sudden very much embedded in the economy of the coal industry, and I would argue that that’s probably not an economy that the Northwest stands to benefit from over the long term.
Eric de Place is a researcher with Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank in Seattle.