Oregon Blocks Coal Exports to China

Plans to build coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest are biting the dust.

(Photo: Jason Cohn/Reuters)

Aug 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

There will be 8.8 million fewer tons of coal heading to Asia from American mines every year through Oregon, thanks to that state’s scuttling this week of a planned $242 million export terminal.

It’s the latest blow to big coal. With the demand for domestic coal declining as cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas floods the market, American coal producers are looking to markets in China and other Asian nations. But first, the industry has to get coal from the mines to the Pacific Ocean. That means persuading the environmentally conscious Pacific Northwest to build a gateway to Asia.

“The U.S. coal industry is in a death spiral, and the main place they have their sights on is the Pacific Northwest, because it’s the shortest distance between the big Western mines and the Asian markets,” said Eric de Place, research director at Sightline Institute, an independent sustainability-research organization based in Seattle.

Ambre Energy had planned the $242 million project to move coal by train from Wyoming and Montana to Boardman, Ore. From there the coal would be put on barges and floated up the Columbia River to an export terminal at Port Westward, where it would be loaded on ships bound for Asia.

In denying Ambre’s request, Oregon officials cited tribal fishing rights along the Columbia, saying that a “small but important long-standing fishery” at the project site would be harmed.

Four of six planned Pacific Northwest coal export terminals have been terminated. The remaining two—the Gateway Pacific and Longview projects—are in Washington state, and they’re massive. The Gateway terminal would ship 48 million tons of coal annually, and the Longview project would ship 44 million tons.

“In aggregate, we’re right in the middle of a gigantic environmental win, shutting off the exits for domestic coal,” said de Place. “It’s easy to imagine that the Pacific Northwest is going to be driving a nail into the coffin of the U.S. coal industry.”

People object to the plans for a number of reasons. Environmentalists dislike the coal trains because burning coal is the No. 1 contributor to climate change and emits mercury and other pollutants.

Locals oppose coal trains because they cause traffic to grind to a halt two to three hours a day to let the trains pass. People also object to the dust the trains create and the impact on their property values.

“I like to say that there’s a little of something for everyone to hate in the coal train proposals,” said de Place.

He pointed out that while coal terminals aren’t really popular anywhere, the Pacific Northwest is a place where residents don’t see themselves as part of the fossil fuel economy. “Big coal and oil really fly in the face of our regional identity, because they don’t have roots here,” he said. “They don’t offer many jobs or opportunities—it all looks like downsides.”