The Gristle

Coal Folds

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

COAL FOLDS: Forty cars of a coal train derailed in Montana last week, dumping an unknown amount of coal into nearby Rocky Creek. 

“Some of the cars filled with coal were left intact while others were mangled,” the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported. “Others folded like an accordion or fell off the tracks.”

Something analogous might be said of the Wyoming legislature’s attempt to smash open the Pacific states to more coal exports. That state’s House Judiciary Committee passed a bill last week that would authorize lawmakers to sue Washington for denying a crucial permit for a proposed coal-shipping terminal on the Columbia River.

Wyoming and five other states—Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah—are filing friend-of-the-court briefs siding with the developer of a proposed $680 million shipping facility at Longview, Washington.

The Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana is the nation’s top coal-producing region. Their problem? They don’t have ocean-front property.

Six other states that do have coasts—California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts,  and Oregon—have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Washington. The Washington Department of Ecology denied the project a water-quality permit in 2017, saying there were too many major harmful effects including air pollution, rail safety and vehicle traffic. The Longview project is the only project still remaining among six coal terminals originally proposed for Oregon and Washington.

The coal industry suffered another heavy blow in the other Vancouver last week, as the British Columbia province joined the West Coast states and canceled a key permit for the Fraser Surrey Docks project.

The terminal was planned to ship 4 million tons of Powder River Basin coal to Asia, adding coal train traffic and air pollution to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In 2014, the Port of Vancouver, BC, approved a plan for coal to be loaded onto barges for transport to Texada Island on to ships bound for Asia. The project was amended in 2015 to allow for direct loading onto ocean-going ships in the Fraser River. The company change would have meant 80 ships compared with 640 barges on the lower Fraser, including arrivals and departures, but communities such as Surrey and New Westminster remained adamantly opposed to the project.

Fraser Surrey Docks describes itself as the largest modern, multipurpose marine terminal on the west coast of North America, handling 300 to 400 deep-sea vessels per year.

“This is a massive victory for the health and safety of our communities and the stability of our climate,” Regna Merritt, co-director of the Power Past Coal coalition, said in a statement. “The Fraser Surrey terminal would have meant more dirty coal trains polluting the air and water in communities throughout Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The decision to cancel permits for this coal port shows that the world is turning away from the dirty energy of the past and towards a clean energy future.”

If coal is an unloved product in its export, it is equally unloved as a competitor in modern energy markets.

“We’ve seen plenty of actions over the past year and a half designed to end the coal industry’s long-term economic slide,” Sightline Institute’s Clark Williams-Derry notes, including new tariffs on renewable energy sources, rollbacks on the Obama administration’s clean power plan, and a call for outright subsidies for economically failing coal and nuclear plants. “Despite it all… the economics aren’t going to get any better for coal in the years to come,” Williams-Derry argues.

“The brutal truth is that even in a best-case scenario Asian coal demand would never be able to replace the production that’s going from the Powder River, which lost about 100 million short tons of output between 2014 and 2016 alone—greater than the total volume of U.S. coal exports,” analysts for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) concluded in a report in October.

It is a mined-out product; and chasing it to its grave exhausts our lives and our ecosystem.

Canada’s First Nations and Washington state tribes increased the pressure on British Columbia to join the West Coast coalition, calling for a moratorium on new marine vessel traffic stressors to the Salish Sea.

“Fisheries, resident orca populations, sacred sites and traditional economies are all threatened by new and/or expanded port facilities and the additional shipping associated with such facilities,” Coast Salish Nations on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border noted in a joint press conference last week.

“Lummi Nation is calling for a moratorium on projects that would increase shipping and related pressures to the Salish Sea until a comprehensive, interjurisdictional cumulative impacts assessment has been conducted,” said Lawrence Solomon of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

“Our connection to the killer whale is personal, is relational, and goes back countless generations,” Lummi Chairman Jay Julius said. “Our name for them, qwe ‘lhol mechen, means our relations below the waves.”

Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who also took part in last week’s press conference, spoke of his horror at declining orca and salmon numbers.

“That to me is the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “The animals are going… it’s happening, and it’s not going to be too long before it’s affecting all of us.”

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Past Columns
E Pluribus Unum

May 15, 2019

The Millworks

May 8, 2019

State of the County

May 1, 2019

A Change in Climate

April 24, 2019

The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019


April 10, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

Fire and Ice

March 6, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

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