By Carol Pierson Holding
In a long-awaited move, the EPA has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to review plans for West Coast coal ports. Finally, alarmed environmentalists and frightened local residents are getting help from the Federal government.
In December, 2010, I first heard about a proposed coal port in Longview, Oregon and was so outraged that I wrote an article for CSRHub.com. It was so shocking, here, in the Pacific Northwest, a place that prides itself on clean energy leadership. Where just months later, amidst great celebration, Washington state announced it will close its last remaining coal plant.
The environmental arguments against the Longview coal terminal seem indisputable: the coal that would have been shipped from Wyoming and Montana was the lowest grade, a grade outlawed in the US because it is so toxic. The trains carrying the coal would go through the Columbia River Gorge and other environmentally sensitive areas, spreading adjacent land and communities with coal dust.
And when the coal finally got to China, the resulting clouds of black soot could have resulted in pollution so thick as to reduce visibility in West Coast communities, a “myth” that I witnessed several years ago in San Francisco.
That Longview port proposal was withdrawn in the face of consumer opposition and a state review. But as I just found out, a new plan was submitted in late 2011 that “dwarfs the size of the original.” The $600 million project would create a port that exports a staggering 44 million tons of coal per year, making it twice as big as the largest coal port on the West Coast, which is located in metro Vancouver.
The strange thing is that even moderate voices in the coal industry question the viability of new coal ports. David Gambrel, coal consultant with many years working in coal companies, cautioned developers in Coal Age to take a lesson from the past. In the 1980s, the Port of Los Angeles responded to the same frenzied level of Asian demand for coal, then from Japan and India. The port hosted a $150-$200 million consortium to build LATX for coal exports and in the early 90s opened a world-class facility. It exceeded environmental requirements. Even tough union problems were overcome.
But several years later, the demand from Asian markets failed to meet LATX’s minimum annual guarantee requirements and the project was shuttered.
The Port of Portland went through a similar saga, investing $25 million in its own export terminal only to find Asian markets to be unstable and unreliable.
And yet, here we are again. This time, coal prices are sky high and many more determined coal port developers are jumping in, including SAA Marine in Cherry Point Washington; the Longview facility which is co-owned by Ambre Energy of Australia and the US Arch Coal; Rail America’s coal terminal at Grays Harbor Washington; and three smaller ports in Oregon, including the Port of Morrow’s proposed development soon to be under review by the Corps of Army Engineers.
Even if Asian demand for coal does stay strong, there are many other uncertainties that make investments risky, including increased competition from Alaska and South America when the Panama Canal widening is complete in 2014, the arrival of larger New Panamax vessels which cut shipping costs but require deeper harbors, and the ability of railways to handle heavy loads and trains longer than 100 cars.
But the most frightening risk of all to the coal port developers is the environmentalists. As David Gambrel writes in Coal Age:
“Finding a site that meets all the physical requirements will be but a small part of the job. Global warming, climate change, and a host of other scare phrases will be used by people who now genuinely believe the Chinese will burn high sulfur coal and send their unclean stack emissions back to us. In many cases their fear is so great they will do everything in their power to stop any new development.”
How right Gambrel turns out to be. It’s those crazy residents and even crazier environmentalists devoted to stopping the coal port developments who pushed the EPA to pull in the Corps of Engineers. It’s amazing what a determined group of people can do, even in the face of the combined forces of coal, railway, and shipping industries. I sure hope they succeed.
Photo published under Creative Commons license. Courtesy of Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.
CSRHub has a Special Issue of Coal Involvement. The 51 companies on this list are involved in the coal industry either via coal mining, production of coal mining-related equipment, coal-based power production, or engineering services. Sources used: Coal Mining Engineer’s List, Van Eck Global Coal, Power Shares Global Coal, Source Watch Carbon, U.S. Energy Information Administration Coal Producers, Yahoo! Coal.
Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.