On coal exports: think globally, act locally

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

There was a fascinating item from Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones last week about coal exports.

To be honest, I struggle with the whole environment-versus-jobs thing. I really do believe that it doesn't have to be a choice - that the best jobs we can create are clean energy and green tech jobs; high-paying modern manufacturing jobs.

But it's issues like coal export that just put those two goals in direct opposition. And I'm sympathetic to the jobs argument. Fundamentally, I believe strongly that we have to have a strong middle class - and that necessarily means a lot of jobs that go beyond pushing bits, and involve moving atoms around. As Ted Kulongoski once said at an AFL-CIO convention (paraphrasing from memory), "We need electrical engineers, but we need electricians, too. We need hydrologists, but we need plumbers, too." and so on. And when you're moving atoms, things aren't always clean.

So, I'm sympathetic to the coal-equals-jobs argument. But this item from Mother Jones really just puts a whole new light on it for me.

Morrow County, Oregon, is a quintessientially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the US coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal—harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships—gets final approval. ...

The Port of Morrow, where coal would be transferred from inland trains onto outbound river barges in the small town of Boardman, is just one of five proposed new coal export terminals now under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If built, the terminals could more than double the amount of coal the US ships overseas, most of it bound for insatiable markets in China, India, South Korea, and a suite of other Asian nations.

We tend to think of this coal export fight here in Oregon as a little, local issue. But it's huge -- we'd be responsible for doubling exports of coal overseas. That's not a way to encourage these emerging economies to wean themselves from coal. That's feeding the addiction.

And that's not a small thing:

A new Greenpeace study, released today, ranked the [Pacific Northwest] terminals as the fifth dirtiest proposed energy project in the world, under Arctic oil drilling but above US fracking and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, finding that the increased coal use they would facilitate would, by 2020, dump some 460 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This echoes an EPA finding last year that the Port of Morrow terminal would pose "significant" local public health threats.

Of course, our own Senator Ron Wyden is now in position - as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee - to actually do something about it.

But as important as the terminals are to the coal industry, they've run up against a wall of resistance by everyone from local environmentalists to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D), who has vowed to use his seat at the head of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to hold the terminal proposals to a rigorous environmental accounting.

"I've never seen such passionate opposition to a proposal as I've seen to coal export," Brett VandenHeuvel, director of local environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, says.

I'm just getting educated on the issue, but man, this one seems much more serious than it had previously seemed. At least to me.

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