Montana officials praise Cherry Point coal port plan

Video: Montana delegation talks about proposed GPT coal port at Cherry Point

Congressional and business leaders from Montana talk to the media about the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point on Tuesday, Aug. 18 in Bellingham. Ralph Schwartz | The Bellingham Herald
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Congressional and business leaders from Montana talk to the media about the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point on Tuesday, Aug. 18 in Bellingham. Ralph Schwartz | The Bellingham Herald

Congressional and business leaders from Montana shrugged off the concerns of environmentalists and praised a coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point.

This was no surprise, as coal is an $80 million a year business in Montana, according to U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican and Montana’s only House member. No state has more coal in the ground than Montana, the officials said.

Zinke and representatives of the Montana Farm Bureau and Montana Chamber of Commerce met with reporters on Tuesday, Aug. 18, after touring the site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Proponents say the terminal could open in five years and ship up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year to overseas markets.

The visitors were impressed with the site and the plans for the terminal.

“I’m really impressed with the way that the footprint will be pretty small for a facility this size,” said Hans McPherson of the Montana Farm Bureau. “There’ll be a lot of untouched land.”

“We think it’s going to have a minimal impact on this area,” said Glenn Oppel, government relations director for the Montana Chamber.

“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.”

Lummi Nation, the tribe most directly affected by the terminal, is strongly opposed to the project and has refused to negotiate a design that would be agreeable to terminal proponent SSA Marine and the tribe. Instead, Lummi Nation in January asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the project to protect tribal fishing rights off Cherry Point and in the shipping lanes heading to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Corps is still gathering information from SSA Marine and the tribe. The agency has said it will make its decision independently of an ongoing environmental review. Zinke and other members of Congress have asked the Corps to finish the review before ruling on the Lummi request.

Another tribe, Crow Nation in Montana, has surfaced as a potential stakeholder in Gateway Pacific Terminal. SSA Marine announced on Thursday, Aug. 13, that coal company Cloud Peak Energy had purchased a 49 percent stake in the terminal. Crow Nation has an option to take a 5 percent stake from Cloud Peak’s share, but it hasn’t committed to the acquisition yet.

Coal-port critics were skeptical of the motivation of pro-coal interests in bringing Crow Nation into the picture.

“Clearly this whole thing was intended to counter the negative publicity they’ve been getting around the Lummi Nation’s demand to the Corps of Engineers to deny the permit,” Climate Solutions senior advisor Ross Macfarlane said on the day the deal was announced.

The Crow tribe has an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal on its land. Through a deal reached by Cloud Peak and the Crow in 2013, the coal company would mine the coal and pay the tribe a 7.5 percent to 15 percent royalty. Cloud Peak is also paying the tribe up to $10 million up front.

“The Crow tribe is tired of being poor,” Zinke said. “Their only option for jobs and to control their destiny is utilization of coal.”

“I’m willing to work with the two tribes and come up with a win-win,” Zinke said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Environmental groups in Washington state are concerned about coal’s contribution to climate change.

“Show me where this facility is going to have an impact,” Zinke said. “I think we need to recognize that fossil fuels are going to be a part of our energy picture this generation and next.”

“The science is not settled, but we do need more data on it and I think we need to be prudent,” he added. “Using high-grade coal from Montana that’s U.S. made is a better path no matter what side of the fence you sit on.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.