Politics Blog

NY Times shows that stances on coal terminal look fuzzy from a distance

I can imagine Gov. Jay Inslee shaking his head over his newspaper this morning.

Maybe Whatcom County council members Rud Browne, Barry Buchanan, Ken Mann and Carl Weimer did the same thing.

Whether these men subscribe to The Bellingham Herald or the New York Times, they didn't have to look past Page 1 to find what might have perturbed them.

(OK, I admit it's doubtful Inslee spends any time over The Bellingham Herald in the morning -- with the possible exception of one day last week.)

The New York Times put a story about the governor on Page 1 of its main edition today (this link will only work on Monday, Aug. 4).

The Bellingham Herald reprinted it above the fold in a heavy font: "Climate change battle brewing."

The point of the article, written by Coral Davenport, was that a climate change battle wouldn't be needed if California billionaire Tom Steyer's investment in this fall's state Senate races pays off, and Democrats retake the majority. Then Inslee's strategy to address climate change, one of the most ambitious in the country, could sail through the Legislature without a battle.

It's a timely, important story -- and it's good to see the New York Times, which still sets a national standard for newsworthiness, featuring Washington state and its environmental agenda. The story also possibly introduced many East Coast readers to an issue we've been thinking about for a year at least, ever since the problem of ocean acidification was being addressed at the state level, and the Seattle Times ran a multimedia report on the issue.

Still, as a reporter myself I know that it's usually the smallest points that people will latch onto, if they are perceived as inaccurate. And I'm guessing the governor and the four county council members would take issue with the accuracy of a few of the incidental statements made in Davenport's story.

First of all, where did she get that Inslee wants to block construction of coal export terminals?

Davenport:

(Inslee's) plans, embraced by his liberal base in Seattle, include setting some of the toughest limits on carbon emissions in the country, joining with other states to cap carbon emissions all along the Pacific Coast and blocking the construction of Washington ports that would ship American coal to China.

After a quick search, I couldn't find any statement by Inslee in which he takes a stand against the Gateway Pacific Terminal or coal terminals in general. Under his leadership, the state Department of Ecology called for a wide-ranging review of GPT's environmental impacts, including climate change from coal burned in China, and some conservatives have hung that on him. 

He has justified assessing the effects of burning coal in China on Washington's environment by saying it contributes, for example, to ocean acidification and the resulting harm to developing oysters.

But my partner in politics blogging, Samantha Wohlfeil, asked Inslee when he was in town last week about his position on GPT. He said, essentially, that it was too early to form an opinion. Let's wait to see what the environmental impact study says, he said.

Here's a transcription of Wohlfeil's recording of Inslee's answer to the coal question (thanks, Sam, for sharing):

We’re following the law, going through an environmental impact statement. We’re very intensely making sure citizens are going to have a good environmental impact statement so that good permitting decisions can be made.

We have just sort of started the first stage of that. We’re going to make sure we get answers to important questions before any permits are issued.

The obvious ones are water quality issues, air quality issues, coal dust issues, transportation issues. But we are also going to make sure that citizens have information about carbon pollution associated with burning coal that would go through these ports. So that’s going to be part  of our information we’ll give Washingtonians as well.

We’re making sure Washingtonians get all the answers they deserve, about coal dust, transportation, job creation associated with the coal port and coal pollution, and that’s not going to happen this week. It’ll probably be a year-and-a-half-plus before that’s completed, so Washingtonians can get what they deserve, which is a fair, straight, comprehensive answer to these questions.

That doesn't sound to me like a call to block a coal terminal. Davenport doesn't quote him to that effect either, so I suspect she printed something that was off the record or made an assumption.

Secondly, Davenport made what I call the Fallacy of the 2013 Whatcom County Council Elections, viz., that electing the four Democrat-endorsed, environmentally friendlier candidates to the council significantly altered the odds GPT will be approved.

Davenport:

"(After Steyer's group spent $275,000 on the Whatcom Council elections), prospects are now dim for council approval of a proposed $600 million port in Whatcom...."

Again she doesn't quote anybody to support this statement. She is just committing the fallacy. We don't have much evidence to suggest which way Browne, Buchanan, Mann or Weimer would vote. (You can make reasonable conjectures about some of them, but nothing very evidence-based, as I said. All have been steadfast in not making a statement for or against the coal terminal.) Also, the other three council seats (now held by Barbara Brenner, Sam Crawford and Pete Kremen) will be up for election before the council decides on the terminal's permit. The terminal's prospects may or may not dim or brighten based on those 2015 election results.

Davenport didn't bring up the Whatcom County elections in her New York Times article by happenstance. As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, she's the reporter who broke the Whatcom council election story to a national audience in May 2013, when she wrote for the National Journal.

Her story had the memorable headline, "The Obscure County Election that Could Change the Planet."

Maybe next time Ms. Davenport writes about Whatcom County, she'll drop by for a visit.

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