A stronger voice on coal

To oppose a coal-export facility is to become expert at Whac-A-Mole. As one export mole is mallet-ed back (consider the canceled RailAmerica Project at Gray’s Harbor) another mole rears up. In addition to the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point — a job-generating proposal that could gum rail traffic in Snohomish and Skagit counties — there is the Millennium Bulk terminal in Longview.

In Oregon, there is the Morrow Pacific Terminal Project with transfer sites at the Port of St. Helen’s north of Portland and at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. Two other proposals, including one at Coos Bay, are still in the whiteboard phase.

Except for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, however, the Northwesterners with the biggest mallets aren’t playing.

In April, Kitzhaber wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, demanding a comprehensive and programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Oregon governor advanced a non-parochial approach, in his words, “to look at the unprecedented number of coal export proposals pending in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the potential effects in this country of the use of this coal in Asia.”

China’s energy appetite, fueled by the world’s second-largest economy, will intensify, a reality confirmed by former Ambassador Jon Huntsman last week during a visit to the University of Washington. Similarly, China and East Asia will innovate, aping the United States and its shrinking domestic demand for coal. Less expensive, cleaner natural gas and renewables are eclipsing fossil fuel.

Footnote Kitzhaber’s boldness with a smaller toolbox than Washington’s. Oregon doesn’t benefit from a State Environmental Policy Act that demands permitting agencies initiate thorough review of a project’s potential environmental impact. And many non-electeds, such as Washington’s Ecology Director, Ted Sturdevant, have been asking tough questions. Sturdevant sent a letter to the Corps calling for a cumulative impacts review and EIS on the Port of Morrow project. Now the political class, Kitzhaber notwithstanding, need to exhibit vision.

During the 2012 gubernatorial race, Governor-elect Inslee embraced a cumulative impacts analysis of coal export facilities, consistent with his pro-environmental record in Congress. Now, the governor-to-be is staying mum, just when a strong, clear voice is required. Writing in Publicola on Tuesday, Inslee presented his environmental agenda. Managing coal exports was a sin of omission.

Inslee might want to pipe up and fill the political vacuum. He can even participate in the scoping meeting to gauge community interest in Cherry Point on Dec. 13 at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center, from 4 to 7 p.m. The coal elephant isn’t going away.

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