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West Coast coal exports to China challenged on greenhouse gases

December 13, 2010 |  8:05 pm

Longview-coal-export-facility 
Plans to open the first major coal export facility on the West Coast are likely to be delayed until next year because of an appeal filed by a coalition of environmental groups, which say shipping coal to Asia throws a wrench in U.S. efforts to reduce international greenhouse gas emissions.

On Nov. 23, commissioners in Cowlitz County, Washington, approved the 5.7-million-ton-a-year shipping facility on the Columbia River. The appeal argues that efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants in the U.S. are fruitless if American coal, unburned here, goes to power plants in China.

"The Pacific Northwest has dedicated a tremendous amount of energy to trying to reduce our coal use, and now the state of Washington would be allowing a massive amount of coal to be exported from our shores, while at the same time shutting down coal plants here," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeepr, one of four organizations asking the state Shoreline Hearings Board to overturn the permit.

Coal originating from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would travel to Washington via rail to a former aluminum plant site in Longview. From there, Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, proposes to ship it to clients in Asia, chiefly China.

Though there have been small-scale shipments in the Western U.S., British Columbia has handled the bulk of the region's coal exports. The Longview facility is only the first of several proposed along the West Coast, as coal producers scramble to adjust to markets that are booming in Asia and dwindling in the U.S.

Joseph Cannon, Millennium's chief executive, said shipping Montana and Wyoming coal to China would  result in fewer harmful emissions -- including of mercury, some of whose presence in the Columbia River has been traced to Asian industry -- because the coal is cleaner.

"China is building coal-fired electric power plants like crazy," Cannon said. "They have a near-insatiable appetite for electricity over there. So they're going to burn coal. This coal is vastly cleaner than the coal that's being burned in China. Not just less mercury, but less sulphur and less nitrogen. That's not a greenhouse gas, of course, but this will make it better for the people of China."

Cannon said the company's studies also showed that exporting coal from Washington would result in no net increase in greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state.

The appeal, joined in by the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council, represented by Earthjustice, argues that county commissioners erred in finding there were not enough significant environmental effects to warrant preparation of a full environmental impact report.

The permit allows Millennium to construct a "multi-modal bulk materials handling facility" on the former Alcoa Aluminum site, 40 miles north of Portland, a project that would require dredging in the Columbia River, home to some of the most important and threatened salmon runs in the Northwest.

VandenHeuvel said it was impossible to believe such a major facility would have no significant environmental effects worth studying. "We think that opening up a West Coast port hub to millions of tons of coal export is certainly significant," he said.

The appeal says the county should have examined the water pollution, wildlife and air quality impacts of both mining and transporting large quantities of coal, impacts of commodity shipping traffic in the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean, and the role that availability of U.S. coal will have in incentivizing construction of more coal-fired facilities in Asia.

It calculates that 5.7 million tons of coal will generate more than 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of about 2 million cars, while the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in Washington, a coal-fired power plant in Centralia, emits about 8 million tons a year.

"This one facility would export about as much coal as the whole state of Washington now uses, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. It flies in the face of the state's commitment to climate solutions," KC Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, said in a statement.

Cannon, the former editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, where Millennium is based, said the company had agreed to pay a higher shipping tariff to protect against coal dust emissions during rail transit.

At the same time, he said, large amounts of coal are already being shipped to the Centralia power plant and to a Weyerhaeuser paper plant in Longview, next to the proposed Millennium site, which uses coal power.

"I'm not trying to say there's no greenhouse gas issue worldwide. That's not the argument. But trying to make energy policy in the context of individual facilities like this one and others -- the logic they want to apply to this facility would say that Boeing Aircraft is responsible for Delta Airlines' greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Cannon said the fact that the appeal has been filed will result in a delay of at least six to seven months, meaning the company will be unable to begin work during the short construction window available this year, between Oct. 31 and Jan. 31, under regulations designed to protect salmon runs.

"Assuming it finishes in the spring or summer, we could start the onshore work and be ready to go next October when the fish window opens again," he said.

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: The proposed Millennium Bulk Logistics Site is shown on the lower left along the Columbia River. Credit: Brett VandenHeuvel

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