Politics Blog

Complex federal review of Ore. coal port still ‘orders of magnitude’ simpler than GPT

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has pressed “pause” on its environmental review of a coal export terminal on the Columbia River in Oregon, after that state last month rejected a permit the terminal’s proponent needed to build a dock.

The corps announced the decision in a statement released today, Monday, Sept. 15:

The Corps’ Portland District has elected to pause its review process because the Oregon Department of State Lands has denied authorization of the shipping terminal construction activity. DSL’s decision is being appealed.

Portland District Commander Col. Jose Aguilar has determined that continuing the District’s evaluation at this time is inappropriate, given that it is unknown whether required state authorization will be subsequently granted, and a substantial amount of work is still required for the Corps to process its application to a conclusion.

The corps’ decision to stop its assessment of the environmental impacts of Ambre Energy’s terminal at Coyote Island, near Boardman Ore., was about time management.

“We still have quite a bit of work to do on our own permit review process,” corps spokesman Scott Clemans said. “It doesn’t make sense to devote those resources until the outcome of that process of the (state) permit is known.”

Clemans provided more context on where the corps stands with the Oregon project. In a way, the corps is about three years behind where it is with the Gateway Pacific Terminal. For the Port of Morrow terminal, the corps hasn’t decided whether it needs an environmental impact statement — the more involved environmental review that comes if a project is expected to have a significant adverse environmental impact.

That determination was made for Gateway Pacific Terminal back in 2011.

For Coyote Island, the corps was still conducting an “environmental assessment” — trying to determine what level of environmental review is needed.

“The Seattle District didn’t do an environmental assessment,” Clemans said, referring to how the corps’ Seattle office approached both Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point and the Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview, Wash. “The effects on the environment (on those WA projects) were orders of magnitude greater than ours (in Oregon).”

Clemans continued: “The footprint of those two projects is really large, and it was really easy for the Seattle District, without going through a formal EA, to say, ‘This is going to require an EIS,’” or environmental impact statement.

“All we’re dealing with is a relatively small dock.”

That small dock at Coyote Island raised enough environmental concerns to cause that state on Aug. 18 to reject the construction permit. The small dock was also complicated enough to make the corps’ environmental assessment take more time than usual.

“For an environmental assessment, it has definitely been a pretty lengthy period,” Clemans said.

The two most time-consuming elements of the assessment in Oregon will be part of the corps’ review of Gateway Pacific Terminal as well: making sure the project is acceptable with respect to endangered marine species and tribes’ treaty rights to their usual and accustomed fishing grounds.

“Those two pieces tend to be the lengthiest part of any permit,” Clemans said.

The corps and Lummi Nation have been meeting to discuss Gateway Pacific Terminal for quite some time now — at least for the year-plus that I’ve been paying attention to Whatcom’s coal port proposal. Given Lummis’ strong public displays of opposition to the terminal, it’s hard to imagine those discussions going very far to this point.

Groups on both sides of the coal-terminal debate weighed in on the corps’ announcement today that it was halting its review of the Oregon project.

Here’s the full statement from Power Past Coal:

PORTLAND, Ore. – Today the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will stop all permitting for Ambre Energy’s floundering Morrow Pacific coal export project along the Columbia River. Ambre needs Army Corps permits for an industrial coal dock in order to build and operate its proposed export terminal near Boardman, Ore.

The federal agency’s decision to stop all permit reviews, including a highly anticipated Environmental Assessment, comes on the heels of Oregon’s August 18th decision to deny a critical state lands permit for Ambre’s proposed coal dock. Ambre Energy would use the terminal to ship over 8 million tons of coal annually along the Columbia River and through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

In response, Brett VandenHeuvel of the Power Past Coal coalition released this statement:

“Ambre’s coal export proposal is dead in the water. Without federal and state permits, Ambre cannot start exporting U.S. coal on uncovered coal trains that would pollute land and water along the Columbia River.

Today is a good day for Northwest communities, but we aren’t finished yet. Even as domestic and global coal demand falls, coal companies will push their financially shaky projects in Washington State, Gulf states, and abroad to Canada and Mexico. But events in Oregon show that communities do not want coal, period. Together, we will continue to fight Ambre Energy and other coal companies like Ambre’s subsidiary, Millennium Bulk Terminals, which wants to force a coal export facility into Longview. Wherever coal companies try to push their product, communities will lead the charge against their special interests in order to protect our health, safety, economies and natural resources.”

Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which advocates for Pacific Northwest coal terminals, provided this statement:

“All three proposed NW coal export terminals have been designed to meet or surpass the region’s high standards for environmental stewardship. The recent approvals of a two-year environmental assessment in British Columbia demonstrates that commodity terminals serving coal meet the high environmental standards our region expects. With Canadian and California ports expanding, Oregon and Washington risk missing out on the new jobs and investment these facilities would provide, and the benefits that investment brings to all trade-related industries.”

Finally, Liz Fuller, spokeswoman for Oregon project proponent Ambre Energy, gave this response:


Today the Corps announced that the Morrow Pacific Section 10 permit is on hold, pending the outcome of the Oregon Department of State Lands appeal. The permitting process will resume when DSL renews the permitting process.

The Corps has never encountered a denial of a DSL permit. Already, the decision by DSL is setting precedent within the permitting process.


Our focus is on the DSL appeal process where we will prove as we have before that the project meets Oregon’s environmental standards.

DSL’s permitting decision is now setting precedent within the federal permitting process. Ambre Energy worked with the Corps to arrive at this decision.

— John Thomas, VP Legal