I’m working on a radio story about the Morrow Pacific coal export project. That means I am trying to capture the sound of something that doesn’t exist yet. Tricky.
In the process, I’ve learned some interesting details about the project that distinguish it from the five other coal export projects proposed around the Northwest.
Here are 6 things I think you should know:
1. It’s A Two-Port Project With Two Coal Transfers (Instead Of One):
The Morrow Pacific project would transport up to 8 million tons of coal a year by rail from Montana to the Port of Morrow in eastern Oregon.
There, the coal will be unloaded at a covered terminal and loaded onto barges through covered conveyors. The barges will take the coal down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens, where it will be transferred onto bigger ships bound for Asia. At full build-out the project will send one or two tows of four barges downriver every day – increasing the number of barges on the river today by 94 percent.
The method the company has proposed for transferring the coal from barges to ships is unique. According to Morrow Pacific President Clark Moseley, the transloading operation fits existing technologies into a unique configuration that will control coal dust and spillage. But no other companies that he knows of are using this method of transferring coal.
Here’s an illustration of how that will work:
2. It Requires Building 20 New Barges And Around 5 New Tugs
None of the other coal export projects proposed for the Northwest plan to put coal on barges, so this is a unique element of the Morrow Pacific project. But there aren’t enough tugs and barges operating on the river today to handle all the coal that the company wants to ship.
Morrow Pacific is already seeking bids from two Portland barge-builders for the construction of $70 million in covered barges. The barges would pass through three different dams on their way to the Port of St. Helens, and would also pass by tribal fishing grounds above Bonneville Dam where fishermen are not so thrilled about more barge traffic.
But barging the coal allows the company to avoid sending coal trains through the Columbia River Gorge and small towns on the lower river.
I visited Gunderson LLC in Portland’s northwest industrial district and walked the docks with general manager Mark Eitzen. He said the barge-building job would support 350 jobs at his company. Here’s a picture of a barge-building operation:
3. It Still Needs Two Key Permits – And Maybe More
Project backer Ambre Energy has applied for permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands. But critics, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, have also called for a more rigorous accounting of all the environmental impacts of coal export projects – from the mine to the end of the smokestack in Asia.
So far, the Corps hasn’t decided whether Morrow Pacific, or any other coal export company for that matter, will have to go through a longer environmental review that accounts for the cumulative impacts of multiple projects. The project has already completed a review of the project’s environmental impacts for the Corps, and Moseley said his company doesn’t think an additional review is necessary. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently weighed in on the issue, saying requiring a full “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” for the project would hurt the coal industry and the U.S. economy overall.
Morrow Pacific already has agreements to use the land and the dock at the ports of Morrow and St. Helens. The agreements – and the project itself – have been more controversial in the St. Helens area than it is upriver. Project opponents are especially miffed because of the way the Port of St. Helens agreed to allow the company to use its dock without letting the public see the agreement first. (See The Oregonian’s detailed story about the project’s backroom dealings.) If the company gets its federal and state permits, it will be free to move ahead with the project at the ports of Morrow and St. Helens without any further approvals needed.
4. At The Port Of St. Helens, It’s Just A Dock
The project won’t have a footprint on land at the Port of St. Helens – it will only occupy a dock. I went out to the dock at Port Westward – a 10-minute drive from Clatskanie in a pretty remote corner of Columbia County. Here’s a picture of the place.
The reason that’s significant is because there’s another coal export project proposed near the dock, but it’s a totally different arrangement. Another company, Kinder Morgan, has proposed the Port Westward coal export terminal, which would bring 30 million tons of coal to the Port of St. Helens by rail. That terminal would have a footprint on land, and it has drawn a lot of opposition because it would mean bringing coal trains through the Columbia River Gorge.
5. Its Backer Is Also Backing The Millennium Coal Export Project In Longview, Wash.:
Project developer Ambre Energy is based in Australia but has U.S. headquarters in Salt Lake City. The company is also a 60 percent owner in another coal export project on the other side of the Columbia in Longview, Wash. That project would export 25 million tons of coal in its first phase and 44 tons of coal at full build-out. Morrow Pacific spokeswoman Liz Fuller of Gard Communications said there is a “Chinese firewall” between the two projects.
6. It’s A Front-Runner Among The Northwest Coal Export Projects:
A coal industry analyst I interviewed earlier this year said this is the coal export project that is mostly likely to become reality of the six proposed on the West Coast. However, he said, some people don’t think any of the projects will come to fruition:
“I think the best chance over the next few years is going to be the Port Morrow and Port St. Helens with Ambre Energy. They’ve pretty much got the Port Morrow part of that transportation down as far as shipping it from that port over to the Port of St. Helens for export and loading it onto larger ships there. … I think they’re probably the furthest along. They’re hoping 2013. That may be a little ambitious.”
Unlike two other big coal export proposals in Bellingham, Wash., and Longview, Wash., the Morrow Pacific project doesn’t have to go through Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act process. Oregon doesn’t have a SEPA requirement, so that could make for a shorter permitting process, as well.