Despite President Obama’s climate policy urging less reliance on coal at home and abroad, the federal government has taken a hands-off approach to proposals to build northwest terminals capable of exporting more than 100 million metric tons of coal annually. It’s been left to the states of Oregon and Washington to determine the future of coal exports for America.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber pleaded with the federal government to undertake a broad and comprehensive analysis of exporting coal, including its transportation by rail, pollution of air and water, and the long-term impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s been nothing but deathly silence from Washington, D.C.
So it was good news last week when the Oregon Department of State Lands denied a vital permit to Ambre Energy, effectively shutting down its application to build a coal terminal at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River. It would have shipped about 9 million tons of coal to Asian markets annually.
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The state of Washington should follow suit and reject Ambre’s plans for a larger terminal at Longview, being proposed under the subsidiary Millennium Bulk Terminals.
Since 2010, coal companies have proposed six export terminals, and three of those proposals have already been abandoned. But the Oregon and Longview sites are still on the table, along with a proposal for Cherry Point near Bellingham.
The opposition from environmental groups, tribes, health professionals and elected officials has been fierce and continues to build. In Oregon, more than 20,000 individual citizens contacted the governor to oppose the terminals, plus 86 elected officials, about 600 businesses and more than 3,000 medical professionals and public health advocates, including 165 physicians.
Yet, because of the vacuum created by federal government inaction, the Oregon DSL could not deny the Ambre permit based on harmful climate impacts. It relied on Ambre’s failure to explore alternatives that would not have adverse effects on tribal fisheries.
Coal export companies will find it difficult to overcome tribal treaty rights and cultural claims to water quality, even with the federal government’s curious silence on its own air and water quality regulations. The Lummi tribe is already actively opposing the Cherry Point terminal.
The Oregon environmental victory should create renewed momentum in Washington against the Longview and Bellingham terminal proposals. Add in China’s recent announcement that it hopes to wean itself off coal and reduce its coal consumption levels and environmental progress appears probable.
In a perfect world, however, the federal government would have articulated an energy policy that harmonizes the president’s statements about coal’s future in America with scientific data, ultimately setting clear direction for states and offering support to mitigate the effects of climate change.
A federal policy should also make it clear that sending coal to be burned in China causes just as much harm to the earth’s climate as burning that coal here at home.