Is the Northwest a Coal Scrooge?

A train carrying coal hugs the Puget Sound on it’s way to the Westshore coal terminal in BC. With a proposed new terminal in Bellingham, coal train shipments through Washington State are set to increase dramatically. (Photo by Paul K. Anderson)

When you go to sleep tonight, Seattle will be visited by three ghosts: the ghost of energy’s past, the ghost of energy’s present and the ghost of energy yet to come.

The question is, will we wake up and shape our own destiny?

Imagine a mountain of billowing, black coal taller than the Columbia tower blanketing downtown Seattle from Pike Place to the Smith Tower; 48 million tons in all.

That’s how much is proposed to pass through our city each year if a new terminal to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China moves forward.

With the Northwest pegged to be America’s front door for coal exports to Asia and the debate powering up, what’s a Seattle Globalist to think?  Is this the great leap forward that will put us on the world energy map? Will our region blow carbon dioxide in the face of the polar bears? Or perhaps it will all come down to a WTO style showdown on the streets or in the courthouses of cities and towns stretching from the Columbia River to Vancouver, B.C.

Regardless, it’s time for the Northwest to come face-to-face with our place in the global energy economy.

The Ghost of Energy’s Past

Cheap electricity from hydropower was a foundation for Washington State’s economy and one reason this region emerged as a center for global business. Aluminum companies and Boeing found a competitive advantage built on the back of the Grand Coulee and other dams.

If Cherry Point terminal is approved, Seattle would see 48 million tons of coal passing through the city each year. (Infographic via daily.sightline.org)

Some of those dams are now coming down as Washington looks to a new future.

Initiative 937 approved in 2006 set aggressive targets for renewable sources of energy beyond hydro, Governor Chris Gregoire signed a bill to make this state coal-free burning by 2025, and Governor-elect Jay Inslee campaigned on a Washington working on clean energy.

Nationally coal is on the decline as well, as of April of 2012 monthly consumption had fallen to its lowest level since 1986.  That means coal producers in Montana and Wyoming are looking for markets. The pressure is for growth outside the United States. Mitt Romney accused President Obama of ‘waging a war on coal’ and Obama’s reelection sent coal stocks plunging over disappointment that regulations on new domestic coal plants will not be rolled back.

The Ghost of Energy’s Present

Coal is extracted in a strip mine near Gillette, Wyoming. Both Wyoming and Montana hope to export their coal to China via Seattle’s ports. (Photo by Paul K. Anderson)

While America’s days of burning coal appear limited, consumption in Asia has been barreling forward, with China in the driver’s seat.

China burns nearly the half of the world’s coal, consumption increased than 400% since 1980 (click for an animated view of that increase), even while their renewable energy ambitions and action expose a lethargic United States.

Both China and the United States primarily consume local mined coal domestically. But while U.S. politics drive a quest for energy independence and local harvesting, China appears content to keep their remaining natural resource reserves safely under their feet and import today’s necessities.

To serve the demand, companies with mines in Wyoming and Montana which have nearly a quarter of the US coal reserves, are trying to get their coal to that market. Thus enters northwest railways and shipping terminals.

Of course there’s no guarantee that Asia will find U.S. coal attractive. A terminal built by Los Angeles in the mid-1990’s failed when the market for export soured and neighboring countries seem perfectly happy to supply China.

But it does seem that there is an opportunity, right here, right now for our region to play a role in shaping the global energy markets and all that implies for the economy and environment.

The Ghost of Energy Yet to Come

Democratic and Republic presidential candidates acclaim coal as a job creator in election after election, wooing swing state voters.

Some local unions, politicians and economic development advocates agree and are pushing for terminal developments. ‘What is the difference between coal and apples’ the hypothetical longshoreman argues.

Opponents decry coal as a threat to our health, the economy and the environment; they believe it’s time we (and China I suppose) “power past coal” to the age of clean energy.

Blanchard, Washington is home to farmlands in the Samish River delta which border the railroad tracks. Opponents of the coal terminal are concerned about the local impact of transporting the coal through Washington State. (Photo by Paul K. Anderson)

The arguments for and against coal have focused on local impacts, but the consequences of whether our region and thus the country could rise as a coal exporter are also most certainly global.

Seattle and Washington State take pride as a trade oriented region with our airplanes, software and apples found just about everywhere on earth. The Seattle-Tacoma port region is the third largest shipping hub in North America, there’s no denying our economy relies on overseas customers. There’s also no denying that those industries have consequences to which we’ve yet to fully face-up to.

Coal would reinforce our global trade orientation, but would also complicate and gray our reputation as the emerald city.  The proposed projects would nearly double US coal exports and make the US the third largest supplier of coal to Asia at full capacity. It would produce roughly 262 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, as much gasoline as is burned in the Western US.

Time to Wake Up?

It’s unclear whether Northwest individuals or institutions will be able influence how this plays out and whether we stand to profit and/or share responsibility for coal’s continued growth or decline in Asia. Some commentators believe it will make little difference.

If the turnout at recent hearings can be trusted, many Northwesterners have little interest in being the gateway to Asia when it comes to coal, and they aren’t afraid to say it. The Seattle City Council came out with a resolution against coal terminals in Washington and the Mayor sponsored a study demonstrating traffic delay and congestion. Citizen and non-profits have been equally adamant opposing Cherry Point terminal.

With six coal export proposals on the table between Washington and Oregon, the Northwest could be exporting up to 145 million tons of coal each year. (Infographic via daily.sightline.org)

But we might also reflect on the fact that we host some of largest manufacturers of the most fossil-fuel consumptive products, like planes and trucks.

How can we mitigate the  negative impacts of these industries? We also continue to consume energy at a much higher rate per capita than most of Asia. Given that, who are we to scold China for wanting to buy our coal to fuel their economic growth.

What can we do in our own lives, businesses and associations to reduce our share of natural resource consumption?

Our state is failing to lead on comprehensive climate legislation, like the cap and trade system just created in California. How can we take a stand and advocate for climate policy that would give us real power to define our role in the great coal export debate?  The first step is waking up and speaking out.

You can have a say in person with a couple thousand of your neighbors at a public hearing on the Cherry Point terminal this Thursday, Dec. 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place, Ballroom 6F. For more information visit: http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/

Deric Gruen is a Seattle native, a Garfield High alum, and an MPA graduate from the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs. He is currently working on an economic and monetary policy project for the transatlantic Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environment Policy (ELEEP) network, a program of Atlantic Council and Ecologic. He recently served as the sustainability director for Bellevue College.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Also, check out the Seattle Community Media series Moral Politics on the issue of coal exports interviewing Sightline’s Eric de Place

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