If you wondered if funneling most of North America’s increasing coal exports through the Pacific Northwest might have some serious environmental consequences, you will have to wait awhile for answers to the big questions.
For example: Will exporting 70 million metric tons of coal annually from Northwest ports by 2017, as some estimates project, contribute significantly to the buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases and therefore hasten the coming climate catastrophe? Will a sizable increase in coal train traffic significantly degrade air quality in the Northwest?
These issues and others are currently being studied as part of the official environmental assessments for the proposed Gateway Pacific export terminal near Bellingham, and the Millennium Bulk Terminals near Longview. The Department of Ecology has already announced that the review of the projects under the State Environmental Policy Act will include an analysis of exports’ affect on greenhouse gas emissions, including the end use — coal-burning power plants in Asia.
On the somewhat peripheral issue, the effect of many miles-long open coal trains passing by, conclusions may be far off, but less-than-subtle hints are peeping through. You can find one on the always interesting Northwest weather blog of University of Washington Professor Cliff Mass (cliffmass.blogspot.com).
He’s posted the results of a recently published study by UW colleague Daniel Jaffee that tested air quality near the tracks. It found, in my unscientific description, quite a bit of crud.
The researchers set up two stations near the tracks, one in Seattle and the other at Lyle in the Columbia Gorge. They measured microscopic particles and black carbon in the air before, during and after the passing of trains. They set up video recorders to show what kind of train was passing.
They showed that near the tracks, trains are a significant source of diesel particulate pollution, and “our results also show that after passage of coal trains there was a statistically significant enhancement in larger particles, compared to other train types. These larger particles most likely consist of aerosolized coal dust.”
There were big obvious spikes in particles in the air, and Mass notes that the coal trains carry more than 100 open cars and take minutes to pass. In his summary Jaffe notes these are near-the-tracks measurements. Further studies need to find how pollution changes with proximity to rail lines, and what the health effects might be.
Mass concluded: “Coal trains are environmental and economic disasters that are not worth the handful of train and terminal jobs they would produce. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you should be against these trains.”
Perhaps he is right. But, just perhaps, with some adjustments the economic benefits of energy exports might be enough to help us tolerate the environmental consequences. Coal going out is evidence of money flowing in, which is something to consider seriously and weigh against troubling coal dust and greenhouse gases.
The economic factors are extraordinarily complex. How will worldwide coal markets and fluctuating demand affect Northwest exports? How do U.S. coal exports affect worldwide patterns of use and market prices? If we increase our exports of coal, will the world burn more dirty fuel, or about the same, or less?
These questions are going to burn through the environmental impact assessments for the export terminals. Whatever the answers, there will be controversy and naysayers and objections, but at least we will have made an effort to find out what we are doing before we do it, and what we are doing to ourselves.
Tracy Warner is a Wenatchee World columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.