CHEYENNE — While environmental opposition mounts against planned West Coast coal export terminals, an industry executive said Thursday if the U.S. doesn’t get coal to Asian customers, somebody else will.
“For us, it’s all about terminals, and for us it’s really a question of where it’s going to be,” said Jim Orchard, a senior vice president of Gillette-based Cloud Peak Energy Inc.
He said U.S. coal producers are facing stiff competition from coal mined in Indonesia, which is much closer to Asian customers and therefore cheaper to transport.
“If it doesn’t happen in the United States, it’ll happen somewhere else,” he said at the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s spring board meeting.
The coal industry is scrambling to shift U.S. coal production away from the slumping domestic market to growing markets in Asia, including the booming economies of China and India. But to do that, coal producers must open export terminals on the Pacific Coast.
While coal companies, including Cloud Peak Energy, are shipping relatively small amounts of coal out of expanding Canadian ports, a number of companies are pushing forward with several port projects in Washington and Oregon.
Powder River Basin producers Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., both St. Louis-based companies, are involved in separate port projects in Washington that would exports of tens of millions of tons of coal every year.
Orchard cited a BP outlook showing electricity demand in China and Asia is expected to climb 58 percent from 2011 to 2035. The same outlook forecasts a rise in seaborne coal exports from 500 million to 1.2 billion tons annually.
“What we really need from a U.S. perspective is terminals in the United States,” Orchard said.
But opposition to the ports is getting stronger and more united among residents in Washington and Oregon, in communities along the rail route from the Powder River Basin west, and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.
“The opposition is passionate and sincere,” Orchard said.
Greg Schaefer, Arch Coal vice president of external affairs, noted a recent $50 million contribution to the Sierra Club from the Bloomberg Foundation has funded additional staff for the club’s anti-coal campaign.
He said the Sierra Club plans to oppose natural gas and oil in the future, with campaigns that mirror the Beyond Coal effort.
“Once they get past the coal industry, they’re coming after everyone else who makes a living in Wyoming,” he told attendees of the Infrastructure Authority meeting.
A late Thursday call for comment to the Portland, Ore., office of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign wasn’t immediately returned.
Coal export opponents say the ports and the rail lines supplying them would pollute water and air, stretch long trains across the West and contribute to climate change when the exported coal is burned in Asia.
Orchard said mining the coal isn’t a problem. Getting it to Asia without port expansion is.
“Could we double and triple the amount of coal that is going across Montana into Washington state? The answer is yes,” Orchard said. “There’s plenty of work to be done, but there are no bottlenecks there.”