PENDLETON, Ore. — Two of Oregon’s top political leaders have expressed reservations about a plan to move Great Plains coal through Oregon by rail and barge, while a member of the state House is working as a consultant to build local support for the project’s Australian developer.
Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Ron Wyden both said during Eastern Oregon stops this month that the United States should think twice about what the governor called the “massive export of coal.”
That includes a proposal to ship coal to the Port of Morrow near Boardman and then put it on barges to be sent down the Columbia River to meet ocean liners bound for Asia.
Meanwhile, Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner, who has an economic development consulting company, is working for the project developer Ambre Energy to win political and business support in the region, the East Oregonian reported.
In a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board, Kitzhaber said questions about the idea should be answered before the trains roll: “How does this impact energy security? Will it drive up domestic coal prices? What will be the impact on the environment of increased coal burning in Asia? What is our national energy policy?”
Wyden, in meetings last week in Boardman and Pendleton, said the nation’s shift toward energy exports calls for a pause. The U.S. is exporting gasoline and refined oil for the first time since 1949, Wyden said, and there’s talk of increased exports of U.S. coal and natural gas.
“I just feel very strongly that we ought to kind of call a timeout here, a little bit of timeout,” Wyden said.
“It doesn’t have to be legislation or anything like that, and start thinking about export policy that involves domestic security, national security, prices and what it means for the environment.”
The Morrow proposal is among half a dozen under consideration in the Pacific Northwest to export coal from the western states.
Kitzhaber and Wyden are Democrats. Smith is a Republican whose district includes Morrow County and the Port of Morrow.
As Gregory Smith and Co., he has been lining up support from government, school and business leaders. He’s cited jobs the development will bring and payments the company will make to schools, the county and the port.
He said Ambre has addressed concerns about coal dust, and the amount of the fuel represented by the Morrow projects is insignificant on a global scale.
“It will not even put a dent in the market price for that commodity,” he said.
Environmentalists say the state should assess what one called “the full impacts of the project” before issuing any permits.
“Coal is extremely dirty and it’s being phased out throughout the U.S. because it’s unsafe,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
A public comment period for Ambre’s application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dock at the Port of Morrow is open until May 5.
Wyden said other federal agencies may review the project, including the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Spokesman Tim Raphael said Kitzhaber is keeping an eye on the Morrow proposal.
“The governor is exploring his options to engage and will ensure that any project obeys all state and federal laws to protect public health and the environment,” he said.