Northwest Coal Train Fight – The Modern Day Spotted Owl

For the past several years, coal industry officials have been attempting to secure approval to ship coal from Pacific Northwest ports to expanding markets in Asia. This would entail approval to increase rail shipments from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to new or greatly expanded terminals in Washington and Oregon. Industry officials state that this would bring thousands of living wage jobs to the region, giving a shot in the arm to an area of the country where the industrial and manufacturing base has lagged for many years, and where the unemployment rate consistently ranks above the national average.

These new terminals are opposed by a wide swath of environmental groups who have made the coal train cause the modern day equivalent of the Spotted Owl fight that decimated the natural resources industries in Oregon in the 90s. This comparison is appropriate, because the fight against coal trains, if successful, will deny economic opportunity to thousands of Pacific Northwest families, and is equally based in faulty or misleading science.

The Powder River Basin (PRB) is the largest coal mining area in the United States. PRB coal is noted for its low sulfur and ash content, meaning that it burns much cleaner than Appalachian coal. The basin also contains major deposits of petroleum, methane and uranium – in other words, it’s one of those naturally occuring areas of economic potential, like the Bakken Formation, that make other countries jealous of us. Around 50% of domestic electricity production comes from coal, and 40% of that is powered by PRB coal. In addition to firing our domestic production, as developing economies in Asia grow, they are looking for affordable options for powering their electrical grids. The price per kilowatt hour to produce electricity from coal is a fraction of the cost of most other sources (excluding natural gas), making it an attractive choice for emerging economies.

So if it’s a cleaner burning coal and it lowers costs for consumers, why would environmentalists oppose it?

The short answer is that they’ve waged a war on coal, and they want to kill the industry altogether.

Oh, they dress it up with concerns about the local environment, and they worry about coal dust from the trains, and they bring up all sorts of other ecological boogey men. But if you drill down just past the surface of the arguments, it always comes back to one thing – they don’t want to encourage the expanded use of coal anywhere.

In an unusually candid moment, a state legislator from Washington told The Economist what the underlying motivation is:

Press the naysayers, though, and you find deeper concerns. “Shipping coal to Asia is about as innovative as a tree stump,” says Reuven Carlyle, a Washington legislator who thinks the state’s future lies in emulating the high-tech achievements of Amazon and Boeing. The terminal’s main local foes call themselves Power Past Coal. Shoveling millions of tons of the stuff to China every year, say campaigners, will lower prices and encourage it to prolong its reliance on the filthy fuel.

A coalition called Power Past Coal puts it in scary terms on their website

Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Being a gateway for coal export would fly in the face of our region’s leadership in the clean energy economy. Shipping up to a hundred million tons of coal a year to Asia through West Coast ports would spread toxic coal dust in dozens of the rail communities, clog our railroads and ports, risk our families’ health, pollute our air and water, and stoke the climate crisis.

Naturally, coal industry representatives say that these concerns are overblown. A coalition of industry and business interests has a website of their own, There, they point out that coal trains have been running through the region for decades, and the results have been anything but dirty: “The Northwest Clean Air Agency, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and Spokane Clean Air Agency have not had a single record of any coal dust complaints as of [2012], despite coal trains traveling through the region for years.” They further point out that “locomotives are the most fuel-efficient means of ground transportation in America, accounting for less than 1% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” shooting down the argument that train traffic would be a significant driver of increased carbon emissions.

(No, I don’t believe carbon emissions are anything to worry about, but shooting down the environmentalists’ own arguments is fun.)

But this fight isn’t about facts. It isn’t even about coal dust (an environmental boogeyman that I will debunk in a subsequent post). It is all about the religion of global warming. Two of the leading evangelists of this religion are Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon. In a joint letter dated March 25, 2013, they call on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality to take into account impacts on global warming before approving any new industrial project – an unprecedented request that is rife with unintended consequences:

Coal will inevitably play an important part in the global energy supply in the short term. However, before the United States and our trading partners make substantial new investments in coal generation and the infrastructure to transport coal, extending the world’s reliance on this fuel for decades, we need a full public airing of the consequences of such a path. Coal is the major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and its share is increasing rapidly. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants resulting from the burning of coal, including pollutants other than CO2, are imposing direct costs on people, businesses and communities in the U.S. and around the world. These costs include the public health costs of increased atmospheric deposition of mercury in drinking water sources, as well as costs resulting from ocean acidification, rising sea levels, wildfires, and shrinking snow packs that are key sources of water for the western U.S.

Later, they make a further request for burdens on the industry:

We also ask that you evaluate and determine the proper policies for pricing coal leases from federal lands, both as a matter of securing a fair return for this resource, and to account for the direct costs of the resulting emissions to U.S. businesses and communities.

That’s right, they want global warming to drive the decision making process on new leases on federal land for natural resource mines.

The implications of this are clear. Studying the effects of American exports on a global level on this one project means that anti-consumer groups could attack other exports (natural gas, plane engines, cars, timber, etc.) and the effects on the environment overseas. This is just green tape. Despite claims to the contrary, environmental zealots are standing in the way of progress, and they’re doing it deliberately – all in the name of the religion of global warming. And as we saw with the Spotted Owl, it’s based on junk science and artificial hysteria that will do far more harm than good.