EnvironmentInvestigative Reports

Washington eschews coal for power, but lines up to be king of shipping coal to China

By June 23, 2011November 21st, 2023No Comments

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – Coal has fueled American electricity for more than 100 years, but on April 29, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation to end coal-powered electricity in Washington. In an effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Washington’s only coal-fired power plant, in Centralia, is obligated to stop burning coal by 2025.

As Washington stops using coal for its own power, it could begin shipping coal to China’s power plants. Whatcom County could become one of the largest coal exporters in the United States and the largest on the West Coast if SSA Marine’s proposed 350-acre terminal is built at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale.

SSA Marine estimates its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could ship up to 48 million tons of coal to China each year if it reaches full capacity, which the company predicts would happen by 2026.Environmentalists and many concerned Whatcom County residents are asking whether this project fits with the spirit of the new state law. The environmental groups argue that coal, whether burned in China or Washington state, produces emissions harmful to human health.

“A ton of carbon dioxide or a ton of coal burned, whether in China or the U.S., is going to have the same impact as far as climate change is concerned,” said Dr. Dan Jaffe, University of Washington professor of atmospheric and environmental science.

Air pollutants are swept into the atmospheric cycle and have a global reach, traveling from Asia to the United States every 10 days, Jaffe said.

Environmental groups at the local, state and national level are weighing in on the terminal proposal, having at least temporarily stopped another coal-export terminal proposed in Longview.

“It’s really interesting that at the same time we’re ending our coal use here, we’re thinking about becoming an exporter of this dirty energy to other countries,” Sierra Club Associate Regional Organizer Robin Everett said. “I really hope Gov. Gregoire can see that her leadership in getting this (Centralia) coal plant shut down is the same leadership that is needed with these [proposed] coal ports.”

Environmental costs versus economic benefits

Environmental concerns are growing in opposition to the terminal proposal, highlighted by a May 31 visit by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben that drew hundreds of opponents to the Fairhaven Village Green in Bellingham; but the promise of jobs and tax revenue continue to garner support. Local labor unions and several politicians hope to see the project move forward and stimulate the local economy.

Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren wrote in an email that the governor has yet to form a personal opinion on the terminal proposal, but said that if the project meets state regulations Gregoire would not stand in the way.

“In Washington, one in three jobs is related to trade, so increasing our trade efforts is critical to our economic recovery,” Shagren wrote.

It’s unclear where the Obama administration stands on the proposal. Efforts to reach former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to China, were unsuccessful despite repeated calls to the Department of Commerce Public Affairs Office. Locke currently serves as Commerce Secretary.

The Northwest Washington Central Labor Council adopted a resolution on Sept. 15, 2010 in favor of the terminal. The resolution says it will boost job security, as well as national and state initiatives to increase exports and spark economic recovery.

SSA Marine spokesman Craig Cole said the terminal would help U.S. producers become competitive in international markets, and Cherry Point is the only efficient location for it in Washington.

Two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter already operate at Cherry Point, a naturally occurring deep-water port that would not need to be dredged to allow access for shipping vessels. Dredging is expensive, environmentally destructive and demands maintenance. Cole said a port that would not require dredging would be advantageous.

Job and tax revenue estimates for the terminal proposal vary. Construction is estimated to take two years and would provide 3,400 construction jobs and 280 permanent jobs, according to the Gateway Pacific Terminal website.SSA Marine’s Media Fact Sheet estimates slightly higher numbers, with 3,500 construction jobs and up to 430 permanent jobs.Estimates for tax revenue on the Gateway Pacific Terminal website range from $50 million to $54 million during construction and $10 million annually during operation.

Former labor council president David Warren estimated terminal operations employees would earn annual incomes of $68,000, with an additional $20,000 in benefits.

“We desperately need these jobs,” Warren said. “I want these jobs. The labor council wants these jobs. We are going to fight for these jobs.”

Current labor union President Mark Lowry said the labor council has been working for almost 15 years to get a fourth industrial operation at Cherry Point. He said unemployment is running at 40 percent in the Whatcom County building trades, and high-wage jobs are needed.

“There is a lot of pain for working people right now,” Lowry said. “There are a lot of people who can’t pay their mortgage; there are a lot of people who aren’t sending their kids to college.”

Opponents of the terminal assert that jobs could be created in other industries.

“The U.S. has the largest amount of coal reserves, so it’s really up to us to lead the world on our ability to keep the coal in the ground and foster a new, clean energy future — we have that responsibility,” Everett of the Sierra Club said. “I want to see us creating jobs in a clean energy future, not in coal digging and shipping it to other countries.”

Supporters of the terminal counter that coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming is cleaner than other coal sources and would be better for China to burn.

“I don’t like coal, and I’m not trying to say that I do. I’m not even terribly fond of China . . . but if we don’t sell coal to China they’re going to get all the coal they want anyway,” Lowry said. “We have good coal in this country: it’s low sulfur. The stuff they will get from other countries is a lot dirtier coal.”

Environmental Impact Statement ‘Scoping’

Environmental advocacy groups have raised concerns about the local and global impacts of the terminal, including building a pier, coal dust from trains and emissions from China. As the permitting process continues, determining where to draw the line when examining potential impacts in an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, is being debated.  

“It’s ridiculous” to consider worldwide climate-change impacts when deciding whether to authorize the port at Cherry Point, said labor leader Lowry, who is also vice chairman of the Whatcom Democrats, a group finding itself divided over this issue. “But I think it’s equally ridiculous to just look at the footprint at Cherry Point. There must be a reasonable balance.”

The coal-export terminal proposed in Longview was halted after the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations appealed Millennium Bulk Logistic’s permit application in December 2010. They stated the environmental review, conducted under the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, failed to adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions, which have global implications.SEPA requires local and state agencies to consider potential environmental impacts of proposed development projects.       

Cowlitz County was the primary local agency responsible for conducting the Longview review under SEPA. According to a county planning document, the proposed terminal would not have impacted the environment significantly enough to trigger an impact study.

The Department of Ecology argued a review for the Millennium Bulk Logistics terminal proposal in Longview should at least consider greenhouse-gas emissions from statewide transportation, particularly from increased train traffic, said Kim Schmanke, an Ecology spokeswoman.  

Environmental organizations are arguing for even broader considerations for proposed coal-shipping terminals. Everett said the Sierra Club fought Millennium Bulk Logistics’ permit application because it failed to consider the entire lifecycle of coal, from mining it in Montana to burning it in China.

“They’re going to do the same thing in Bellingham,” Everett said of the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal. “It’s a different company, but they want the (environmental impact study) to be as narrow as possible, and we want it to be as inclusive as possible.”

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike addressed concerns about scoping in a June 14 letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire in which he asked her to name a state agency to take the reins from Whatcom County in the permitting process. Pike wrote that he wants to “ensure this proposal gets full and transparent review of all significant impacts.” Pike also asked that the City of Bellingham be part of a “Multi-Agency Permitting Team” of federal, state and municipal agencies that would jointly oversee the permitting process.

Whatcom County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Randy Watts fired back June 15 with his own strongly worded letter to the governor calling Pike’s letter “erroneous” and “malicious.” Watts wrote that the city could not be a party to the permitting process because Pike had already taken a public stance against the proposed terminal and therefore was in no position to be a neutral reviewer. Watts also said that the county had already asked the state Department of Ecology to be a co-lead agency in the permitting process.

Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the primary local opponent of the terminal proposal at Cherry Point, said the scope of a review should include any potential impacts of the project  –– locally and globally.

Greenhouse gases and climate change are not mentioned in the preliminary mitigation plan for the Gateway terminal, published Feb. 28 by SSA Marine’s and Westshore Terminals’ joint venture, Pacific International Terminals, Inc. The plan describes potential environmental impacts such as disturbing wetlands. In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the site where the project would be built includes 530 acres of wetlands.

Additionally, the Project Information Document submitted by Pacific International Terminals, Inc. asserts the terminal would not be required under local, state or federal regulations to report greenhouse gas emissions from the facility.  It also states the company would not have control over the source, destination or amount of commodities it would ship, including coal.

Whatcom County planning and development supervisor Tyler Schroeder said greenhouse gas considerations are a relatively new element in the environmental review process. The terminal’s developers submitted a document proposing to consider greenhouse-gas implications of the facility itself and the electricity it will consume. Schroeder said SSA Marine probably will  have to also consider the global-warming effects of hauling the coal by rail.

SSA Marine’s Cole has said his company will review what is deemed necessary, but added, “Some environmentalists will want to include global climate change and what’s going on on Mars,” he said.

State and global environmental and health impacts

Climate change will have global impacts such as rising sea levels, changes in water supply and ocean acidification, all of which will affect Washington state, said Justin Brant, state Department of Ecology climate change policy analyst. In Washington, the projected sea level rise will affect 40 coastal communities, changes in the hydrologic cycle are expected to alter and reduce fresh-water resources and ocean acidification will threaten marine life, he said.  

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, a regional network of grassroots environmental and sustainability organizations including the Powder River Basin Resource Council, has also expressed concern. In January 2011, the organization published a document detailing the risks of exporting coal from the West Coast.

According to the document, “Ramping up exports of coal from the U.S. would subvert the nation’s efforts to reduce reliance on coal, its impacts on global warming, and damages done by mining.”

Everett said coal emissions also impact human health, contributing to four leading causes of death: cancer, heart disease, lung disease and stroke.  

“For our communities to be healthy, they can’t be powered by coal,” she said.

Washington’s new coal-free legislation was based on similar concerns. In response, the Centralia power plant, which began operating in 1971, will transition from coal to natural gas, said Angela Mallow, spokeswoman for TransAlta, the company operating the plant.

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal.“This is a huge success for our state — it’s actually a model for the entire nation,” said Craig Benjamin, communications director for the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a Washington state network of environmental groups.

The Centralia plant burns an average of 1 million tons of coal annually, according to an executive order on climate changefrom Gregoire’s office.  The Gateway Pacific Terminal could ship up to 48 times that much if built to full capacity.

“The health issue is so important here. We’re trying to stop burning coal in this country because it’s not healthy for our citizens, but it’s just as unhealthy for Chinese citizens,” Everett said.

Additionally, atmospheric movement transports air pollution globally. UW’s Jaffe said air travels full circle in about three weeks at the latitudes of the U.S., moving from Asia to the U.S., and then on to Europe.  

Jaffe has conducted several studies in Washington and Oregon that have detected pollutants from Asia such as mercury, which can be emitted by burning coal.

“Most of the pollution we breathe is our own, but China, or Asia, is adding to that,” Jaffe said. “The evidence is indicating that their air emissions are increasing as their economy grows . . . so we think the amount of pollution we get is going to be growing.”

Kimberly Cauvel is a Western Washington University senior majoring in environmental journalism. Marianne Graff is a Western Washington University senior majoring in journalism.

This story is part of a package produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. InvestigateWest co-founder and senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication. View the remaining elements of the package here.

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