Let’s try a word association: what comes to mind when you hear “Pacific Northwest?” Perhaps green, rain, coffee, environmentalists, mountains, salmon, forests. These are all things we pride ourselves on in the Northwest.
But what about coal, tar sands, and pollution?
After years of losing its footholds in the region, let alone expanding their operations, the fossil fuel industry hopes to make the Pacific Northwest its latest export hub. As reported in The Oregonian on Wednesday,
"Ambre Energy, an Australian coal company, is exploring mine acquisitions in the basin and the purchase of the 416-acre Chinook Ventures port site in Longview, Wash., for a bulk export terminal.”The facility is expected to transport 30 million tons of coal per year.
Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the U.S., is also looking to site an export terminal on the West Coast by the end of the year. Due to space limitations in the busy ports of Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., companies are turning to smaller cities like Longview for their operations.
Longview, located approximately 50 miles north from Portland and 66 miles from the Pacific Ocean, has an economy highly dependent on manufacturing and shipping. The site of a closed smelter is being redeveloped into a port terminal by Chinook Ventures as an attempt to bring new business to Longview.
Despite these efforts, the region’s track record of thwarting the fossil fuel expansion poses a significant barrier to the new coal export plan.
Regional Opposition to Coal
The Northwest is an unlikely target for the coal industry. Only three coal plants operate in the region, one in Oregon and two in Washington at the same facility. There are no coal-fired power pants in Idaho.
In 2007, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law SB 6001 which prohibited the construction of any coal plants with greenhouse gas emissions higher than natural gas plants. This effectively killed the Pacific Mountain Energy Center, a proposed integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal plant whose construction was delayed by grassroots organizations until the law went into effect.
Later that year, another integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal plant, was proposed for the small town of Wallula, WA. This facility was intended as a pilot project to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage, which would result in emissions lower than a natural gas facility. After public opposition and evaluation of the project’s risks, the Wallula Port Commission decided to stop the plant.
The Sierra Club launched its Beyond Coal Campaign in the Northwest in 2008, with the goal of making it the first coal-free region in the United States.
For well over a year, activists in Oregon have been working to shut down the Boardman coal plant by 2015, the lone coal plant in the entire state. Portland General Electric (PGE), the company operating the Boardman plant has been frustrated by negotiations with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to either shut down the plant in five years or install pollution control technology.
Hundreds of local residents attended DEQ hearings and meeting of the Oregon Public Utility Commission demonstrating their support for closing Boardman. Student governments at 10 colleges, university and high schools in Oregon, representing 100,000 students passed resolutions in support of the closure.
PGE is now threatening the DEQ that they will install the pollution controls and maintains operations until 2040 if the DEQ rejects their most recent proposal.
“The fossil fuel companies are trying to find some way to keep a future for the industry in the region,” said Nick Englefriend, a volunteer with the Beyond Coal Campaign. “One of the ways they are trying to do this is by propping up their operations for as long as possible and then greenwashing their company image. Another way is to turn the Northwest into an export zone and to sell coal from the Powder River Basin overseas, even though the market for coal is drying up in our region.”
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, explained the massive implications of the project. “The Ambre proposal is expected to export ten times the volume of coal that the Boardman power plant uses. Oregon and Washington have worked for years to stop burning coal. It’s one step forward and ten steps back if we allow coal export in our region.”
Squaring Off Against Tar Sands
Like the coal industry, the tar sands industry is moving forward with plans to use the Northwest as a conduit for tar sands equipment and crude oil exports. Tar sand oil generates three times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil and has devastated an area the size of Florida in Alberta, Canada.
Enbridge, the same company responsible for the oil spill in Michigan earlier this summer, is proposing a tar sands pipeline across British Columbia to the Port of Kitimat. From Kitimat, tankers would transport tar sands crude to markets in Asia. The coast of British Columbia has been protected from tanker traffic for over 40 years. Opposition from local environmental and indigenous groups has stalled the construction of the pipeline, which is planned to cross First Nations territories.
Not only is the tar sands industry seeking to export its crude to Asian markets, but they hope to transport the mining equipment along the highways of the Pacific Northwest. However, in August, Judge John Bradbury revoked permits issued by the State of Idaho to allow ConocoPhillips to ship oversized equipment along Highway 12, a road that follows a federally protected river corridor in northern Idaho. Groups like Save Our Wild Salmon are committed to preventing the Columbia and Snake Rivers from becoming “the conveyor belt for one of the world's largest intentional environmental disasters.”
Although the tar sands industry is new to the Northwest, already coalitions of environmentalists, business-owners, and indigenous peoples are coming together to stop its expansion.
Coal Exports in Washington
Most of the coal to be exported from the proposed Ambre port would come from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Coal from this region is low in sulfur and burns at a high temperature, making it attractive for use in steelmaking. This coal would be exported to China and India, where it would be used to make steel at a lower cost than the United States’ domestic steel industry.
The Ambre project's impact on the Columbia River would come from both the transportation of coal and its use in China, according to VandenHeuvel. “Coal use in Asia is a major source of mercury in the Columbia River system," he said. "If we send our U.S. coal overseas, the mercury from loosely regulated plants will ultimately settle right back into our rivers and pose a serious health risk to people who eat fish.”
Englefried, who is now active in the movement to stop the Longview coal terminal, explained that one of the frequent comments made about opposition to the Boardman plant is that even if it shut down by 2015, the impact will be overwhelmed by the carbon-intensive development in China and India.
“If you care so much about coal in India and China,” he said, “the Northwest now has the chance to influence what's going on over there. Stop the exports.”