WASHINGTON - The U.S Army Corps of Engineers will not review the broader climate-change impacts of proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, an agency official told Congress on Tuesday, June 18.
The much-anticipated decision is a significant victory for the supporters of three coal terminals in Washington and Oregon - including Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point - and a setback for environmentalists and state and local officials who oppose the projects.
"The Corps will limit its focus on emissions to those associated with construction of the facilities," Jennifer Moyer, acting regulatory chief for the Corps told lawmakers. "The effects of burning of coal in Asia or wherever it may be is too far to affect our action."
Moyer added that the Corps would not consider the impact of the transportation of coal by rail from mines to the ports on waterways and air quality - something that the governors of Washington and Oregon, environmental groups and Indian tribes had demanded.
"These issues are not part of Corps' scoping analysis," she said. "We don't control shipping by rail."
Opponents of Gateway Pacific Terminal, proposed for a Whatcom County site by SSA Marine of Seattle, have been insisting environmental studies include the effects of coal transportation and burning. At maximum planned capacity, Gateway Pacific could bring as many as 18 trains a day through the Bellingham area, including nine loaded trains and nine empty trains returning for another load.
But it was not immediately clear whether the Corps official's statement means that rail and climate impacts will be ignored as coal export terminals get regulatory scrutiny. Those issues still could be addressed by state and local governments
Larry Altose, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology, said the state may choose to commission studies of climate change and rail traffic impact under the State Environmental Policy Act, even if the Corps says it is not required to do so under federal law.
"Under SEPA it is possible to address 'direct, indirect and cumulative impacts' of a project, and that can include global warming and rail impacts," Altose said in an email. "This can apply even if the impacts could occur outside local jurisdictional boundaries."
Altose said the state, the Corps and Whatcom County expect to issue their final determination of the Environmental Impact Statement scope within a few weeks, but they have not set themselves a deadline.
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Commitee and a leading environmental voice in Congress, urged Moyer to reconsider the decision.
"I think the Corps is making a big mistake," he said.
In the hearing in the subcommittee on energy and power, no lawmakers from the states where the proposed ports would be built were present. But many from coal-producing states were.
The subcommittee's Republican chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield, comes from Kentucky, one of the nation's leading coal producers. However, the state's coal industry has been reeling from a decline in domestic coal consumption, fueled by an abundance of cheaper natural gas and stricter federal environmental laws.
Noting that the U.S. exported a record 126 million short tons of coal in 2012, Whitfield said that overseas markets presented a "tremendous opportunity" for U.S. coal.
"It will help decrease our trade deficit," he said. "It will help increase the number of jobs in America."
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who represents another coal-producing region, said the proposed coal terminals would be a welcome role reversal for the United States, which has long relied on imported energy to meet its needs.
"Now we can say people are buying our energy - they will send their money to us," he said.
But lawmakers from coastal states brought the discussion back to climate change.
"Coal is the single largest contributor to global warming," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. "With everything climate science is telling us about climate change, we should not be exporting coal."
Others oppose the terminals because of potential community impacts. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would bring 50 million tons of coal a year through the Seattle metropolitan area by rail on its way to Cherry Point.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said such movements would increase congestion and pollution in his city.
"We have better ways to create jobs," he testified.
Bellingham Herald reporter John Stark contributed to this story.