Battle brewing over proposed coal export port in Pacific northwest

China’s growing appetite for energy and America’s abundance of coal are putting a small port on Washington’s Pacific Coast in the middle of a clash between local officials and environmentalists.

At issue is a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington, located near the mouth of the Columbia River. Millennium Bulk Terminals LLC, a subsidiary of Australia-based Ambre Energy, LLC, purchased the site of an abandoned aluminum smelter in Longview last November. Ambre plans to spend $100 million constructing a terminal through which coal from Montana and Wyoming would be shipped to China. After completion of the terminal sometime in 2012, Millennium plans to export 5 million tons of coal a year to China. The coal would come from the energy-rich Powder River Basin in in Montana and Wyoming.

Not unexpectedly, the prospect of a fossil fuel contributing to the economic well-being of local residents has not gone down well with environmentalists. Seattle-based Climate Solutions has been joined by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Washington Environmental Council in petitioning Washington’s Shoreline Hearing Board to reject the plan. They complain that the greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants in China will contribute to environmentally harmful climate change. The groups are being backed by the state attorney general and Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Officials in Cowlitz County, where Longview is located, have already approved the facility and dismiss such claims. They point out that building the terminal will create 125 construction jobs and 75 permanent positions, once the terminal is in operation. For its part, Millennium moved to dismiss the petitioners’ motion in January. “Petitioners have no standing,” the company’s court filing stated. Millennium added that greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change are “geopolitical issues” and are beyond the scope of their appeal (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7). The Shoreline Hearings Board will take up the case April 11.

The Powder River Basin produces about 500 million tons of low-sulfur coal a year, most of it destined for domestic markets. China, however, is becoming an increasingly attractive market. The U.S. exported about 80 million tons of coal in 2010, most of it from the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, according to the Wall Street Journal. Exports to China, though still modest, are on the rise. The WSJ reports they rose from just over a million tons in 2009 to more than four million tons last year.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.