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Coal-fired controversy in the Gorge

Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege has joined the ranks of Northwest business leaders concerned that the political battle over coal exports could result in further erosion of U.S. jobs.

He said the latest push by Oregon and Washington governors to tie the regulatory review process of coal shipping terminals to greenhouse gas emissions in Asia is “unprecedented, with potentially devastating economic ramifications.”

“There are people fighting anything and everything when it has to do with natural resources,” said Hege, a consultant in strategic business planning and project management. “These special interest groups are creating havoc for all of us in rural areas.”

Brett VandenHuevel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River-based conservation group, said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Gov. John Inslee of Washington have made a reasonable request. He said coal — as well as natural gas and other fuels — contributes to air pollution that adversely affects people and resources around the globe.

“As the governors stated, opening up the West Coast for these exports will have an unprecedented effect on coal consumption and air quality — so it just makes sense to consider all of the impacts,” he said. “You should never move forward with a major decision without first understanding all of the issues.”

Hege said potential job loss also has to be factored into proposals for three terminals: two in Washington and one in Oregon tied to both rail and barge transportation. He said the median household income in Wasco County is about $42,586, down from the statewide median of $48,457 and the national figure provided by the U.S. Census Bureau of $52,762. He said the same statistics — or worse — are shown in almost every rural county throughout the Northwest where jobs are being shut down due to political pressure from environmentalists.

“Providing people with employment opportunities definitely needs to be given consideration here,” he said.

According to Hege, the situation with coal exports is similar to the fight over management of federal forest lands that occurred several decades ago and resulted in timber harvests being virtually shut down.

He said if Kitzhaber and Inslee are successful in their bid to factor the potential effects of global warming into the review process for coal exports, then shipments of commodities — such as planes and automobiles — could also be held up or blocked altogether.

“There are already laws and regulations in place for a thorough review of terminal applications and we need to let those processes work,” he said.

Hege said Wasco County Commissioners are standing behind the letter of support written last fall for the Morrow Pacific project in Boardman, which is tied to an export terminal in St. Helens.

That plan by Ambre Energy, an Australian-based energy company, involves having coal delivered to a $110 million enclosed facility at the port and then shipped via covered barge down the Columbia River to export facilities in St. Helens.

Coal would be mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming and transported about 1,000 miles to the Port of Morrow via open rail cars.

Hege said the offloading operation proposed for Boardman is entirely enclosed, including the conveyor belt that will be used to load 3.5 million metric tons of coal per year into barges for transport down the river.

Ambre has stated plans to create 25 new jobs with average salaries of $50,000-$80,000.

The company also intends to contribute 10 cents per ton of coal moved through the port to Morrow County schools, which will equate to $350,000-$800,000 per year.

The port anticipates an additional $800,000-$900,000 in annual loading fees.

The Port of The Dalles Commission has also endorsed the Morrow Pacific project but The City of The Dalles has joined government entities calling for expanded environmental review of all terminals. These agencies not only want the area immediately around export facilities, including proposed projects in the Washington cities of Longview and Bellingham, studied for potential pollution and traffic issues, but has requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies extend that analysis to communities near railroad tracks.

Hege said political pressure seems to have resulted in a change of course for the Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of the proposal in Boardman.

Although Ambre was told 14 months ago by the agency that no permit for emissions was necessary because arriving coal would be moved within enclosed facilities, that is no longer the case.

DEQ notified Ambre that a permit would be necessary two days after Kitzhaber and Inslee sent their joint letter March 25 to Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

In the document, the two governors ask that climate change effects also be factored into the review of four proposed projects in the two states.

“Given that the cumulative total of coal exports from Oregon and Washington could result in CO2 emissions on the order of 240 million tons per year, well above the significance level described in the draft (CEQ) guidance — it is hard to conceive the federal government could ignore the inevitable consequences of coal leasing and coal export,” states the letter.

“We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the U.S. that dwarf those of almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future.”

VandenHueval said Kitzhaber and Inslee were also right to request that the federal government, the largest coal owner in the nation, re-examine its leasing procedures for the Powder River Basin and other properties where mines exist.

He said companies that stand to make a large profit off coal production and exporting should not be given a discount on leases involving public lands.

Lauri Hennessey is the spokesperson for the trade advocacy group Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which represents more than 60 member organizations and nearly 50,000 businesses and 400,000 people.

She said new export terminals would be used to ship many other products besides coal and contribute $2 billion to $6 billion per year to the national economy.

“Where does this stop?” she asked.

“The Northwest is heavily reliant on trade. In fact, one out of four jobs is trade dependent. To have our government look at regulatory actions based on what they think of a product or based on what they think of its future use? That’s a big change, and we have never gone down that road before.”

Ross Eisenberg, vice-president of Energy and Resources Policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, has asked the Corps of Engineers to refrain from expanding the environmental review from its current parameters.

His organization represents 12,000 small, medium and large manufacturers in every industrial sector and in all 50 states.

“Frankly, I don’t even know if what they are asking for is legal, it would be unprecedented,” he said.

“We are not saying the regulatory process should not play out, we are just saying the goal posts shouldn’t be moved all of the time.”

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