Powder River Basin coal’s voyage to customers in the Pacific Rim will have to go through Washington and Oregon.
In order to take advantage of emerging markets in India, China, South Korea and other countries in Asia, multiple coal producers with Wyoming ties have teamed with export and rail companies to propose export facilities throughout the Pacific Northwest, which could help satisfy Asian economies’ hunger for coal.
The thought of such facilities has divided communities in two Pacific Northwest states, 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 plug possible boosts to Powder River Basin coal production, which has slipped lately.
“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 like Clatskanie, Ore., and Ferndale, Wash., both of which have populations of less than 15,000. Most of the proposed terminals would generate jobs in the triple figures.
“The jobs that would be provided here would be of great benefit,” Ken Miller, president and chief executive officer of the Longview, Wash.-based Millennium Terminal, said.
But some in the area 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.
“Coal dust blowing from the coal terminal will foul the air and water, as well as homes, boats, and businesses up to several miles away,” an excerpt on the Columbia Riverkeeper website says. The organization did not return a phone call seeking comment.
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 usually reserved 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 for the Gateway Pacific terminal in December drew hundreds and a request for public input drew 14,000 comments.
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 currently under review and hopes to be operational by 2014.
Others, such as the Gateway Pacific and Millennium Bulk terminals in Washington, are still waiting 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 fully 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 nameless.
“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 indeed 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.”