The Gristle

The widening gyre
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THE WIDENING GYRE: The Co-Lead Agencies of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County Planning released their preliminary report this week on the scoping of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, The 140-page report is an initial step as the agencies prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to analyze the potential impacts of a plan that could ship as much as 54 million metric tons of coal per year through a deepwater pier at the Cherry Point industrial area.

As the agencies explain, the EIS must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) in reviewing permit applications relating to the proposed projects. Both NEPA and SEPA require an independent analysis of issues raised through the public process, a process detailed in the report. After considering comments, the Co-Leads will decide what should be included in the preliminary EIS.

In total, the Co-Leads received nearly 125,000 comments during the 120-day scoping comment period, surely making GPT one of the most heavily scrutinized and comprehensively analyzed projects ever proposed in the Pacific Northwest. The majority of comments received were from communities projected to receive greatest benefit or harm from the impacts of GPT, including Ferndale, Bellingham, Friday Harbor, Seattle, and Spokane, but comments were also collected from communities as far away as Montana and Wyoming and from interest groups across the nation.

Notably, the report archives comments from state and federal agencies, the tribal authorities and elected officials, and these are almost universal in calling for the broadest review of the potential impacts of coal export through the region. These include comments from nearly every city along the rail line through the Puget Sound corridor. Project proponents, meanwhile, have called for an environmental impact statement focused on impacts immediately near Cherry Point’s industrial waterfront and the rail spur connecting to the main line at Custer.

“The project applicants believe that the scope of the EIS should be limited to direct, indirect and cumulative impacts that have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposals,” the regulatory agencies summarized. “They state that the proposals do not warrant a programmatic or area‐wide EIS, which would entail a system‐wide or lifecycle impact analysis of coal production and export looking at the indirect and cumulative effects of using the commodity as an energy source. An area‐wide EIS could also encompass multiple commodity terminals under various stages of development in Oregon and Washington,” the agencies commented, noting such complexity could delay the proposals for years.

The tension between these positions is palpable, the very center of the conflict, as widened scope obviously increases mitigation costs and potentially renders the pier economically impossible. The broadening impacts were perhaps most succinctly expressed in one comment was teased from the mass by the Co-Leads who produced the report:

“If China will get coal from elsewhere, then there is no need for this project,” the comment noted.  ”But if China needs the coal ...then the EIS must consider the effects of China burning coal.”

The implications of a focus on the potential impacts of climate change were not lost on groups expressing support for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Comments from the Washington Department of Commerce urged the regulatory agencies not to establish “new precedents under state law that would unduly burden a wide variety of future projects” and not allow this and other projects “to serve as proxies for bigger debates such as how best to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels.”

Calls from the governors of Washington and Oregon for expanded review of the environmental impacts of the project, in the broad context of climate change, drew sharp rebuke from labor and business leaders who support the project.

Governors Jay Inslee and John Kitzhaber wrote a joint letter to the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) urging that it undertake a thorough review of greenhouse gas emissions and other air quality impacts prior to any final decisions on coal export projects. Their request potentially endangers not just Cherry Point, but several other coal export projects currently under review in the Northwest.

Bellingham City Council and other municipal policymakers made requests similar to those of the governors. City Council included a request that the EIS include an analysis of impacts related to climate disruption and increased acidification of waterbodies. “The letter specifically requests that the EIS evaluate the foreseeable impact of coal consumption on global climate change in addition to the carbon footprint of the mining and shipping operations,” the regulatory agencies noted.

“The U.S. Senate voted to oppose any new requirement or regulation that federal agencies account for greenhouse gas emissions in their analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Such a requirement could be particularly damaging to the Northwest, where trade and exports are so vital to the local economy,” said Lauri Hennessey, speaking for the trade advocacy group the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, expressing concerns that excessive regulation could slow or stop exports of agriculture and manufactured goods.

Strange, that the cumulative effects of doing too little in specific response to coal and global climate change should now translate outward to provoke a general fear of doing too much.

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