Powder River Basic Coal Producers Eye Export Expansion in Northwest (Casper Star Tribune)
Communities divided over plans to build new coal export terminals
By ADAM VOGE Casper Star-Tribune
The quickest way to move Powder River Basin coal to Asia is through Washington and Oregon, and multiple coal producers have teamed with export and rail companies to propose shipping facilities throughout the Pacific Northwest.
But proposals to expand shipping capacity have divided communities in a battle pitting economic development against environmental conservation.
Coal, rail and port companies behind the plans tout economic benefits to local communities, mostly in the form of jobs and income tax. The same developers also pitch possible boosts to Powder River Basin coal production, which has slipped, prompting widespread layoffs.
“I think there’s tremendous economic opportunity in coal exports,” said Liz Fuller, the spokeswoman for the Oregon-based Morrow Pacific project. “There’s lots of opportunity to expand production in the Powder River Basin to fulfill need in export market.”
Developers behind other projects say their terminals would bring growth and stability to other port cities such as Clatskanie, Ore., and Ferndale, Wash., both of which have populations of fewer than 15,000. The proposed terminals are expected to be big job creators.
“The jobs that would be provided here would be of great benefit,” said Ken Miller, president and chief executive officer of the Longview, Wash.-based Millennium Terminal.
But some have other concerns. Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Oregon and Washington residents rarely deal with coal and therefore have little familiarity with it. The same residents have trouble seeing how it would benefit them to allow coal to come through their cities.
“Most people, if you’re knocking on their door, their reaction is like, ‘Coal? The dirty fuel?’” she said. “They almost can’t believe it.”
Organizations like the Sierra Club and Oregon-based Columbia Riverkeeper have organized efforts to call for full environmental reviews of each proposal. Each group has similar fears — including possible fugitive coal dust.
Others also fear the long waits created by trains and the message sent by allowing coal to be burned for electricity in other parts of the world.
At least one organizer behind a terminal project said what they are doing isn’t bad for the environment. Miller said his group is turning a “brownfields site” — a phrase for abandoned and polluted industrial areas — into a once-again-utilized part of a community.
“We would be increasing trade that not only helps Washington state but also Wyoming or whatever state coal comes from that would go through this facility,” he said.
Another spokesman for a terminal said not allowing his project to go through could have adverse impacts on more than just the coal industry.
“Our opponents often don’t take into account the economic implications of shutting down certain industries,” said Craig Cole, a consultant for the Gateway Pacific terminal near Bellingham, Wash. “When they complain about rail traffic, they don’t think about farmers and others relying on transportation infrastructure to make a living and get cargoes to market.”
Cole added that the Gateway Pacific is actually a fairly environmentally friendly project.
“Only about a third of the site would be developed. The rest would be natural buffer,” he said. “If you were looking on the West Coast for the perfect place to site this kind of facility, this would probably be it.”
Each of the proposed terminals is likely to come with a fight, and few are far along. An early hearing in December for the Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point in Bellingham, Wash., drew hundreds, and a request for public input drew 14,000 comments.
On Thursday, Cloud Peak Energy Inc. signed a deal to ship up to 16 million metric tons of coal a year through the proposed terminal, which isn’t likely to begin construction until 2017.
Coal would come from the Spring Creek mine near Decker, the Youngs Creek property near the Montana-Wyoming state line and land made available through recently announced option and exploration agreements with the Crow Tribe.
The first project likely to begin operations is the Morrow Pacific project, which would include an offloading facility in the Port of Morrow and an additional transfer facility at Port of St. Helens, both in Oregon. The project is under review, with hope that it can be operational by 2014.
Others, such as the Gateway Pacific and Millennium Bulk terminals in Washington, are still awaiting review. Representatives of both projects hope to begin operations by 2017.
And two others, the Oregon-based Coos Bay and Project Westward terminals, have yet to gain traction. A spokeswoman for the Port of Coos Bay said the port is under an exclusive negotiating agreement with a company that chooses to remain unnamed.
“They don’t want to be identified,” Elise Hamner said. “The company has good track record. I think it’s still working to develop markets.”
Representatives of Kinder Morgan, the company developing Port Westward, didn’t return emails seeking information about the project.
Hamner said the Coos Bay project is still some time away from happening — if it does happen.
“The coal concept — it’s just a concept at this point,” she said.
If all of the five projects reach full export capacity, as much as 125 million tons of coal — much of which would come from the Powder River Basin — could be shipped overseas. That number would be equivalent to more than a quarter of 2012’s total coal production in Wyoming.
Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said he’s cautiously optimistic about what exports could mean for Wyoming coal mining.
“It’s going to take several years to build a significant export capacity,” he said. “We have an opportunity to be part of that worldwide demand for coal. My hope is we’re going to be able to meet some of that demand.”
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