Donald Trump’s nomination of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department could signal the revival of a much-debated coal-export terminal in Northwest Washington state that’s pitted industry groups and unions against environmental and community groups, and two Indian tribes against each other.
In Congress, Zinke has been a staunch supporter of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a $600 million facility in Whatcom County, Wash., that would export about 48 million tons a year of coal mined in western states to Pacific Rim markets.
Zinke also wants to lift a moratorium on new leases for coal extraction on federal lands, 90 percent of which takes place in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. The Interior Department imposed the hiatus earlier this year.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the project in May, citing its impact on the fishing rights of the Lummi Nation. Zinke has countered that Montana’s Crow tribe would benefit from the project by sending coal mined on its lands to the new terminal.
“The Gateway Pacific Terminal is incredibly important to Montana, the Crow, and even to the blue-collar workers in Washington State because it is literally the gateway to economic prosperity and rising out of poverty,” he said in May. “It’s a sad day in America when even our Army Corps of Engineers can be wooed by special interests.”
In April, Zinke compared the Army Corps permitting process for the coal terminal to the Obama administration’s earlier rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“Thanks to political pressure and the environmental special interests,” he said, “the Gateway Pacific Terminal is suffering the same bureaucratic death as the Keystone XL Pipeline.”
Zinke made the project a campaign issue this year, producing a TV ad in September featuring Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s comments that appeared to promote putting coal companies and miners out of business and tying his opponent to Clinton’s remarks.
“I always side with Montana Coal Country,” Zinke said in the ad. “I supported the Gateway Pacific Terminal for the Crow tribe to export their coal.”
Zinke and other Montana officials visited Northwest Washington in August 2015 and touted the project’s benefits for the Crow tribe.
The tribe has a deal with Cloud Peak Energy, a coal producer that purchased a 49 percent stake in the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Under the agreement, the company would pay the tribe $10 million up front and royalties of as much as 15 percent to mine coal on its lands.
“The Crow tribe is tired of being poor,” Zinke told the Bellingham Herald. “Their only option for jobs and to control their destiny is utilization of coal.”
But one of the leading opponents of the project was another tribe, the Lummi, whose fishing rights in Puget Sound are protected by treaty. The tribe had the backing of many environmental and community groups that opposed the project based on climate change impacts or the potential increase in the number of coal trains.
Zinke said in his 2015 visit to the region that the project would address those concerns.
“Their environmental plan is flawless,” Zinke said. “Looking at the restoration of the wetlands along the coast, their willingness to work with the local tribes to reflect their cultural history, I think is well served.”