Montana tribe wants to see Cherry Point coal terminal built

To say the action in the conflict over a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point has boiled down to tribal interests vs. the interests of those who would export up to 48 million metric tons of coal would be to oversimplify things.

Lummi Nation wants to stop Gateway Pacific Terminal, which is still under review, on the grounds that the coal port would interfere with the tribe’s access to waters it has fished for centuries or millennia.

The environmental review is still a year, probably more, from being completed. So the January request from Lummi to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the terminal has put the immediate focus on just three players: the Lummis, the Corps and Seattle-based SSA Marine, which would build the terminal and have it in full operation as early as 2019.

This picture leaves out some interests at the origin point of the coal supply chain: Montana and Wyoming, where the mines are; and another Native American tribe that has interests very different from the Lummis’. These three would like to have a say on the fate of Gateway Pacific Terminal, too.

The Wyoming state government created a little buzz this week when it authorized the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to finance construction of a coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest. The move has no practical impact at this point. If Gateway Pacific Terminal gets approved in a couple years, then the Wyoming authority could talk construction financing with SSA Marine.

That seems a long way off, given the pressure being applied by Lummi Nation on the Corps to stop the terminal — a request the Corps is taking seriously. The Corps has said it will proceed carefully with the request, thereby signaling that a response from the agency isn’t coming soon.

Montana appears to be applying pressure of its own on the federal government. The group Count on Coal Montana sent out a press release yesterday, Wednesday, March 11, about a resolution now being debated in the Montana Legislature that would express support for the construction of new West Coast ports. If approved by Montana, the resolution would be sent to various D.C. offices, including that of the president of the United States, the Energy secretary, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, and to Congress.

In the Count on Coal press release, Gateway Pacific Terminal in first reference is called “Crow Terminal.” I wondered if there were a coal terminal proposal out there I hadn’t heard of, until I got to this point in the release:

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, also known as the Crow Terminal for the impact it would have on the Crow Reservation and the unemployment in the region, is located in Washington and is currently under the environmental review process. ...

In an online search, I found no references to GPT as the “Crow Terminal” outside of communications by Count on Coal.

That a pro-coal company would name the Cherry Point coal port after a Montana tribe is telling. The Crow, historically a tribe of farmers and ranchers, has become highly dependent on coal. Two-thirds of its budget revenue comes from coal, according to a report in December 2013 from American Public Media. That was the year the Crow signed an agreement with Cloud Peak Energy to dig up the coal on the tribe’s land. The agreement could ultimately be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to the tribe in leases and royalties from the extraction of the coal.

The coal might not be mined, however. Chances that the Crow get their full payout diminish if Gateway Pacific Terminal isn’t built.

There’s a vague report in Grist that the Crow lobbied other Northwest tribes to support coal exports, with no success.

It’s unclear how much direct contact, if any, Crow leaders had with officials at Lummi Nation about Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The Crow’s immediate neighbor in southeast Montana, the Northern Cheyenne tribe, hosted the Lummis in September 2013 in a show of solidarity against coal. The Cheyenne tribe’s position on coal isn’t entirely clear, however, after the appearance of an op-ed on Tuesday, March 10, in The (Butte) Montana Standard. A Northern Cheyenne member writes that the tribe recently won the mineral rights on its reservation and should profit from coal like the Crow do.

As the long-winding coal-port approval process approaches a crossroads, groups from the Rocky Mountain states aren’t done making appeals to Northwest tribes. A report on Tuesday, March 10, from Wyoming Public Media said the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority — the body that would finance coal terminal construction — will be coming to the Northwest “later this spring, to lobby Native American tribes for support.”

Additional reading (Indian Country Today Media Network): “ Crow & Lummi, Dirty Coal & Clean Fishing.

New information was added to this post at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 12. This story now includes a link to an op-ed supporting coal from a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.