Pacific Northwest debates coal issues WV lives with - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Pacific Northwest debates coal issues WV lives with


Coal has been such a dominant part of life in southern West Virginia for so long that many of its impacts have become part of the background and are barely noticeable — the long trains, the coal dust, coal trucks, coal docks, barges on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers and many more.

Thanks to the sharp increase of coal use in Asia and the growing demand there for American coal, people in Oregon and Washington state are asking themselves how much coal they want passing through their states from the Powder River Basin to points across the Pacific Ocean.

The question has become urgent as plans have been announced for as many as six new ocean ports for coal in Washington and Oregon. One proposed project has been shelved, leaving five active. But to many people in the area, five new ports is still five too many.

"The coal industry is a newcomer here. We've made a commitment to hydropower and solar and wind power. The coal industry would not be a good fit," said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper.

It's not as though coal is a total stranger to the two states, though. Oregon and Washington each have at least one coal-burning power plant, and Seattle has become a significant export port. According to the Energy Information Administration, Seattle was the nation's sixth-largest coal exporting port in 2010, behind Norfolk, Baltimore, Mobile, New Orleans and Detroit.

And Seattle's coal business is growing. In 2008, Seattle shipped 30,581 tons of coal to foreign markets. A year later, that had grown to 365,260 tons. In 2010, it had grown by a factor of almost 10 again. Last year, nearly 4.9 million tons of coal went through Seattle.

South Korea received nearly half that coal, with Australia and China second and third on the list.

As domestic coal markets soften, Powder River Basin producers are looking to the Pacific Rim for customers, and that's where the new ports in the Northwest come into play.

And with that, people are asking if they want to deal with things that people in West Virginia barely notice.


The attraction

Arch Coal, one of the major producers in West Virginia, also is a large player in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. It is an investor in one of the ports.

"West Coast ports require multi-year permitting and construction efforts, which are underway. Arch is a part owner in the MBT facility, which is located on the Columbia River. Depending on the eventual timeline for permitting and construction, coal shipments at MBT could commence in 2016," said Arch spokeswoman Kim Link.

"Now, let's take a look at the broader market for coal exports. We've positioned Arch to be a much larger player in the seaborne coal trade. We opened international business offices in London and Singapore and have port projects and terminal throughput agreements on the East, West and Gulf coasts. 

"Our thermal coal exports set a new company record for the first half of 2012, and we continue to strengthen and build new relationships with international customers and are exploring opportunities to increase exports into global coal markets in 2012 and beyond. 

"Arch mines have shipped a record 7 million tons for export year-to-date, and expect that we'll reach our goal of 12 million tons for the full year. We continue to see solid demand for our coals internationally. We're moving (Powder River Basin) coal to Korea and China, western bituminous coal to Europe and the Middle East, and Appalachian coal into a wide range of markets. We're positioning Arch to capitalize on expected growth in seaborne coal demand with our low-cost, competitive met and thermal mines — and through our expanding access to export infrastructure via direct investment as well as throughput rights."



Most plans involve hauling coal mined in Wyoming and Montana by rail to the ocean ports, although one seeks to minimize the impact of rail by building a coal dock on the Columbia River and moving it by barge to Portland, Ore., for loading onto ocean-going ships.

Dock developers say they will enclose their loading operations so no coal dust escapes the property, including the proposed rail-to-barge dock at Boardman, Ore. That would be a marked difference from Appalachia, where most if not all docks are open.

Some people in the Northwest oppose the coal docks because they would contribute to coal use in Asia and thus to climate change, Serres said. Some fear the health effects of coal dust that would come off the trains, and some people don't want coal traffic on the Columbia interfering with fishing, recreation and other uses of the river, he said.

The National Wildlife Federation issued a report this summer opposing the new coal ports. It quotes the BNSF railroad as saying a coal car loses between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal per shipment as dust blows off.

Several groups have asked the federal government to study all impacts of increased coal shipments through the Northwest before it approves any permits for docks, Serres said.

"The West Coast doesn't have as much experience with coal as you, which is why we've been trying to encourage people to get information and look before we leap," Serres said.

"Every step we're trying to make to get off of coal in the West becomes irrelevant if we become a coal trafficker for Asia."



Meanwhile, a group called the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports has been formed to promote the proposed docks. The Alliance is supported by mining companies, port developers, railroads and unions whose members would work at the docks or in transporting coal.

Alliance spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey said the group is trying to counter what she calls emotion-driven reaction to the possibility of an increase in coal traffic and coal docks in the region.

"In my opinion, things are going to get interesting, because now there are two sides," Hennessey said.

"We have been transporting coal for years. There's no new development other than the amount," she said.

People of the Northwest are proud of their environmental awareness, but they're also reliant on world trade. Those two strong heritages are clashing, and the debate is becoming polarized, Hennessey said.

An opinion poll done for Oregon Public Broadcasting and released in July showed 55 percent of people of Oregon, Washington and Idaho support transporting coal from the Powder River Basin through the Northwest for export, while 27 percent are against and the remaining 18 percent are undecided. Most of the undecided are younger residents.

"It is a bit of a sea change for the people in the Northwest for people who don't want to think about the reality of world energy and what we export," Hennessey said.

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