Coal shipments are moving by rail through the Northwest and on to Asia, whether Washington and Oregon approve export terminals or not.
The latest evidence came Thursday, when a company backing a proposed coal export terminal at the Port of Morrow on the Oregon side of the Columbia River announced it was leaving the project. Instead, it is exporting coal to South Korea through a terminal in Canada.
At full capacity, the Morrow Pacific project would have handled an estimated 8 million metric tons of coal per year.
Instead, Utah-based Lighthouse Resources Inc. is sending that business to Westshore Terminals in Vancouver, B.C. Trains carrying coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana will still move through the Columbia River Gorge.
Lighthouse cited the lengthy and difficult permitting process in Oregon as the reason for its departure. In August, an Oregon judge upheld a denial of a state lands permit, a decision made in part because Northwest tribes said the project would interfere with treaty fishing rights.
“But for the unprecedented permit decision,” Everett King, President and CEO of Lighthouse, said in a release. “The benefits from trade, jobs and economic development for Oregon could’ve been realized.”
Port of Morrow General Manager Gary Neal said Lighthouse's departure means the loss of $200 million in potential capital investment in the port and 25 future jobs. The port will try to make up the difference by increasing shipments of grains, potash and other commodities, Neal said.
"The product is moving. The efforts of the people who opposed it, maybe they were able to push it in a different direction. But they weren't able to stop it," Neal said. "And our local economy lost that opportunity to have those jobs."
Originally, the dock on the Columbia would have received shipments of coal from 11 mile-long trains each week. Now, that coal is traveling along the Columbia River to the Portland-Vancouver region and from there north through Western Washington's biggest cities before reaching Vancouver, B.C.
The Port of Morrow plans to continue its efforts for a new dock for shipping commodities without Lighthouse.
“Without this dock, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars are at stake for Morrow and Umatilla County and Oregon,” said Joe Taylor, President of the port commission.
Overseas exports of U.S. coal have been touted as a lifeline for an industry wracked by bankruptcies and declining domestic demand for the fuel.
Yet shipments to foreign nations peaked in 2012 and have since fallen by about half, as China and other countries have reduced their imports of the fuel, according to the Energy Information Administration.
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Those export plans need docks in the Northwest, where the coal industry has faced opposition from environmentalists citing concerns about coal dust, sensitive ecosystems and the climate change impact of fossil fuels such as coal.
Jasmine Zimmer-Stuckey of Columbia Riverkeeper, a group that opposed the Morrow Pacific coal project, said the company's shift to Canada was not good news.
"Our allies up north have been fighting coal export just as hard as we are," she said. "It doesn't negate the impacts we are feeling here locally in terms of coal pollution in our rivers, coal pollution through our communities, coal trains through our towns. Our success in stopping coal exports doesn't end at state borders."
Six coal export projects have been proposed in Oregon and Washington. Five have been rejected. One remains under consideration: Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, Washington.
Lighthouse Resources now owns that project as well, and it continues to move forward. That project received a favorable review in a preliminary assessment last month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.