Though I’m far from a single-issue voter, the coal export issue is the one I care most about in this year’s City Council elections. I believe that how one reasons about this issue reveals a lot about a candidate’s priorities and commitment to a sustainable future in Portland because there is so little room for debate on the adverse effects of coal. If you can’t come out unequivocally against coal in 2012 in the greenest city in the United States, you’re clearly not a candidate willing to take a stand against powerful lobbying interests. Because of their strong positions on and active opposition to coal, I will be voting for Jefferson Smith and Amanda Fritz for mayor and city councilor, respectively. Their counterparts, Charlie Hales and Mary Nolan, are tragically absent on one of the most serious and significant issues of our time.
Simply put, there is no local issue with the potential to impact the regional and global environment, social justice, and our way of life more than coal exports. “Coal exports” is shorthand for a plan to strip-mine coal in the Powder River Basin, transfer it (uncovered) through the Columbia Gorge by rail or barge to terminals where it will be loaded on to ships bound for Asia, ultimately to be burned in coal-fired powerplants. Many have written and spoken publicly about the harmful effects of coal in particulate form and after it has been burned. For an excellent summary from public health officials and community members, watch the testimony from the City Council meeting on the coal train resolution, available here.
The proposed plan (what we can get the coal companies and ports to disclose anyway) is enormous. In fact, the coal export plan is projected to have more of a climate impact than the Keystone XL oil pipeline. For environmentalists, there are many local issues at present – like the Columbia River Crossing & Nestle’s bid to privatize water in Cascade Locks – but in terms of local and global impacts, this is the big one. We could create an otherwise sustainable city and just by allowing the transport of the proposed volume of coal by train or barge, we’d be utterly failing in our missions to do our part to stop the climate crisis and to protect the direct health and safety of those who live here. Coal is a filthy substance that destroys whole communities and regions for generations. Treating it as a viable energy source in 2012 is beyond absurd.
So, where do our candidates stand?
Smith, for his part, apparently shares this concern and has been consistent in his promotion a multi-pronged approach on coal. In a video released during the summer, he called on the city to pass a resolution against coal trains, join the governor to insist on an area wide cumulative health and environmental impact study, direct the city attorney to investigate more options, and make sure development in Hayden Island rejects a coal port. Importantly, he acknowledged that the economic benefits from coal would be slight, at best. Smith is straight-forward on coal and his investigate-all-options approach leads me to believe that he is serious about approaching the export issue in a strategic way.
Hales came out against coal in a similar fashion and even said he’d go farther than a city ban and lobby our Congressional delegation, but gave a clue about what I believe is indicative of his overall strategy: “The federal government governs our railroads. They have the ultimate power to make this happen or not.” Leaving aside for a moment that the issue of environmental regulation and the role of community input in public health decisions is vastly more complicated and legally unsettled than Hales asserts – even when railroads are involved – there’s another problem with Hales’ position on coal: he’s playing both sides.
Hales not only has taken $10,000 from interests who stand to gain the most if coal is shipped through our region, but those same people – specifically, Bill Furman of Greenbrier Companies and Frank Foti of Vigor Industrial – are in Hales’ inner circle and are currently raising gobs of cash for Hales as his “deputy prospects” (whatever that means). In other words, the people who are competing for the contracts to build the rail cars and barges to move coal through our region are Charlie’s biggest supporters. So, what can you say about it other than it seems pretty obvious that Hales is committed to the interests of those who stand to benefit most from coal? This reeks of the same cynical politics of trading favors and taking dives that we’ve become accustomed to at all levels of government. You can almost see Hales giving the camera the frustrated look as he tells us that he’d love to do something, but that gosh-darn Federal Government just won’t let us prevent ourselves from being poisoned. Give back the dirty coal money if you want anyone to treat your statements as remotely credible, Charlie.
Amanda Fritz demonstrated her seriousness when she organized the successful city resolution against coal trains. Since the vote, she’s actually refined her message and become an even stronger advocate for public health and climate action. In fact, Fritz’s answer at the City Club debate was the clearest and best position I’ve seen on the subject from a public official yet. When asked if there is a middle ground on coal, Fritz responded:
I was the author of the resolution opposing coal trains coming through Portland and calling for a comprehensive environmental impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers. I think that’s the right approach. It doesn’t make sense to me as a retired nurse, as a mom, to do something that’s not only dangerous to people around the tracks here, but to then to ship coal to other countries where it will be burned and then the toxics will come back here. We have the most aggressive climate action plan in the region, adopted by Council in 2009. We need to make sure we’re addressing both global and local impacts. At the hearing on the anti-coal train resolution […] At the hearing, the proponents said that jobs are more important than anything. And my response was that no, public health is more important than anything and I will continue to advocate for that.Explicitly stating that public health is the highest priority in policymaking is exactly the type of leadership we need in City Hall. Bravo.
Nolan suggests a “balanced approach” on coal, citing mythical economic growth potential, and repeating Steve Novick’s convoluted logic that we should not oppose coal exports because we use coal power in Oregon and insinuating that we’d be discriminating against the Chinese if we stopped the exports. This shameful attempt at painting anti-coal advocates as hypocrites is silly, shallow, and outright ignores the effort that continues to be put into getting us off coal at the local level; the Boardman coal fired power plant is going offline in 2020. For a longer argument as to why Nolan’s position simply makes no sense, please read my August 20th post criticizing Novick’s coal position.
Who is elected to City Council will not be the determinative factor on whether we beat King Coal in Portland. However, community action on coal will be a whole lot easier if we don’t have representatives who are actively working against community efforts to organize the region against the exports. There will probably come a time when the City Council will need to consider its options for directly affecting the trajectory of the coal export proposals. Who is in City Council will determine whether the City will take creative steps to protect its citizens and stay true to its principles or whether we will pass the buck and throw our hands up in frustration. It’s the difference between a helping hand or the cold shoulder (with a feel-your-pain explanation). In my opinion, we’ve got a far better chance at protecting the integrity of our regional environment and affecting the global climate struggle with Smith and Fritz in City Council.