Enviros aim to scuttle coal exports

The latest battle is in Oregon.

The Wall Street Journal article is below.


Coal Fuels a Fight in Oregon
By Joel Millman
January 28, 2012, Wall Street Journal

Environmentalists who scuttled development of a coal-export terminal in Washington last year are back at it in Oregon, trying to keep two ports from becoming transit points for coal shipped to the Far East.

But while many local residents share the activists’ concerns about pollution, the projects’ promise of jobs also resonates widely in a region suffering from declines in fishing, timber and other resource-related industries.

Opponents have set their sights on several proposed terminals that would facilitate the shipment of coal mined in the Rocky Mountains to countries such as China that allow the type of coal-burning power generation that the Pacific Northwest has curtailed.

Last year, a coalition blocked development of a $100 million coal-export terminal at the Columbia River port of Longview, Wash., by challenging the permitting process that had allowed construction to begin. This month, those same activists filed a petition to stop work on the harbor at Coos Bay on Oregon’s coast, then mobilized opposition to two coal projects proposed for the Port of St. Helens, 48 miles downstream of Portland.

At a public hearing Wednesday in Clatskanie, Ore., five port commissioners voted to greenlight the coal terminal projects at Port of St. Helens, across the Columbia from Longview.
One is backed by Ambre Energy Ltd. of Australia, the coal producer turned back at Longview in 2011. An Ambre subsidiary, Pacific Transloading LLC, wants to lease public property to build a terminal so it can load as much as 3.5 million metric tons of coal annually onto ships that would transport it to Asia.

“We are gratified by the commissioners’ unanimous support for our project,” said Clark Moseley, chief operating officer of Ambre Energy North America. “We are absolutely committed to meeting Oregon’s high standards and doing business the Oregon way.”

The project would provide dozens of high-wage jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenue, Pacific Transloading says. On top of the tax revenue, the company promised to donate 10 cents per metric ton of coal to the school districts of Columbia and Morrow counties—$300,000 to $350,000 to each annually. The coal terminal would be in Columbia County, and trains that would transport coal to St. Helens would go through Morrow County.

A second company, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP of Houston, wants to build its own terminal at the Port of St. Helens, also on public property, to handle some 15 million metric tons of coal annually. Port officials projected the two projects would require hiring more than 100 people.

With unemployment topping 12% in Columbia County, Greg Hinkelman, city manager of Clatskanie, the nearest town to St. Helens, said both coal terminals would be welcome, providing what he terms “living-wage jobs.” Mr. Hinkelman is aware of environmental concerns, he said, “but if a project meets all the stringent regulations, we’re for it.”

Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl said, “We want the family-wage jobs, but if there is an environmental impact, that we do not want.”

Environmentalists’ concerns range from coal dust polluting the air to barges spoiling local fishing and tourism to cross-ocean fallout from burning the fuel in dirty Asian furnaces. “Burning coal anywhere is bad for Oregon and Washington,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “A high percentage of the mercury in fish we eat is traced to power plants in Asia, so that’s definitely a concern.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists coal-fired plans in China and elsewhere in Asia as a leading cause of mercury emissions world-wide, a contributor to contamination in seafood.

Coal exporters counter that it would be better for the environment if China were to burn U.S. coal, which has a lower sulfur content than the coal it could get from Asia and Russia.

The tension between jobs and public health crosses the boundaries of many Northwest industries. Rural residents of coastal Oregon say the state’s timber industry has shrunk to a fraction of its output—and prosperity—with the closing of dozens of lumber mills from loggers unable to meet environmental rules set by the federal government. They also blame outside environmental groups for launching frivolous lawsuits that deter business developments.

Local “greens” are equally adamant that only strict regulation can protect jobs in new industries linked to tourism and retiree havens along Oregon’s seaside, as well as traditional industries such as fishing.

“Oregon’s future lies in preserving our unique natural resources, not threatening public health and destroying our estuary for the benefit of foreign corporations,” said David Petrie, a leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, who is opposed to coal ports in the region.

Members of the Sierra Club and Columbia RiverKeeper joined dozens at Wednesday’s hearing when Kinder Morgan and the Ambre unit presented their proposals before port officials, the first step ahead of what may be a lengthy permitting process. Both terminals would require the approval of several state and federal agencies.

While the Ambre project emphasized the use of covered barges to minimize land-dwellers’ exposure to coal dust for moving coal down to St. Helens each year, Kinder Morgan representatives said they were aware that their even-larger project dependent on rail cars would require quite a bit of community input.

“We have an option which begins the due-diligence process over the next several months, to further determine the scope and feasibility of the project,” said Allen Fore, the Kinder Morgan representative at Wednesday’s hearing. “This is the first step in a long process.”

“On an annual basis, any projects of this size could contribute over $1 million to the county in property taxes,” said Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens. Only one other tenant now generates this amount of property-tax revenue, he said. Of 2,000 leasable acres at the port, only 700 are occupied now, he said. “If all the stars align,” Mr. Trapp said, construction could proceed on both coal facilities by the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, this month the Sierra Club joined a coalition of Native American tribes, the Seattle-based Earthjustice and Oregon’s local Greenpeace office to appeal Oregon’s Department of State Lands’ permission to allow “dredging” at Coos Bay, which the port requested. The environmental groups said that permit, to benefit a liquefied natural gas operation, may also benefit a secretly planned future coal export terminal.

Elise Hemner, communications director for the Port of Coos Bay, said there was no secret plan to build a coal terminal. Several bulk-mineral handlers who are interested in the port have approached local officials, she said, but the port has narrowed the suitors’ list to one entity. That company, which she declined to identify, has until April 1, 2012, to decide whether it wants to apply for usage permits necessary to operate at the port, she says.

“We anticipated environmental groups would weigh in,” said Bob Braddock, project director for the Jordan Cove Energy group, a unit of Canada’s Veresen Inc, which building the LNG terminal at Coos Bay. Mr. Braddock says the entire project—a $5 billion investment including a terminal and a 230-mile pipeline—won’t be operational before 2017. He says opposition to the harbor work is “nowhere near critical” to the company’s timetable.

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