By Lee Newgent
Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it won’t break from established practice and, in fact, will not broaden environmental review of coal export facilities in the Northwest beyond what has been required for other projects in the past. While a Herald editorial raised concern with the decision, a good many others, including the Oregonian newspaper, praised the Corps’ decision for what it is: a rare moment of sanity in a too-often heated debate. As the Oregonian observed, the Corps was simply acknowledging that it is “in the business of issuing or denying permits, not manufacturing policy.”
There are still many misconceptions about the proposals to export coal through the Northwest, and that the more information people have, the more supportive they tend to become of these projects. I recognize this is a controversial issue and acknowledge that my bias is for creating needed family-wage jobs in my state. But I’d like to call attention to some important points about these projects.
First, these projects represent an important opportunity to enhance our regional trade infrastructure and expand our economy. The three projects, if approved, would create almost 12,000 jobs, including more than 9,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs. These jobs are in rural Oregon on the Columbia River, in Longview in Southwest Washington, and up in Ferndale, in rural Whatcom County. Whatcom County’s unemployment rate rose in May to 7.2 percent up from 6.7 percent in April, due to increase in people officially looking for work. This is significantly higher than King County at 4.3 percent. The recession may be over in Seattle. That’s not the way it is in Ferndale. These projects also would generate more millions in needed revenue for our communities. In addition, by expanding our port capacity they would lower shipping costs for our agricultural and other commodity producers. And, regardless of whether we export coal or we don’t in the future, these facilities will be critical to continuing to build our exports and keep our regional economy strong.
Second, the backers of these projects are committed to acting responsibly and upholding our state and federal environmental laws. Not only do we have some of the best environmental regulations in the country, but the companies involved in the three proposed terminals are working closely with local, state and federal regulators on environmental assessments to determine what steps will be required to mitigate impact on the local environment.
Third, stopping these projects will not reduce the amount of coal used in Asia. The fact is that many countries in Asia rely on coal to keep their economies going and provide needed services to their populations and will find a way to get it. They can get it from countries like Indonesia or Russia — or even U.S. coal shipped from Canadian ports. At full capacity, the amount of coal that could be shipped from the Gateway terminal represents about one percent of what China uses. We can tell ourselves that blocking exports will stop other countries from using coal, but it’s just not true.
The Gateway Pacific Terminal in Whatcom County has been working its way through the regulatory process for years, including seven public hearings held across the state. And that’s before we even get to the draft environmental impact statement… and then the final environmental impact statement, both of which will include more opportunity for comment. The Millennium project in Longview has also been long in the making, and is only now approaching its first public meetings after months of rigorous work with governmental regulators. Project backers in both Whatcom and Cowlitz counties are willing to answer the tough questions. They are willing to hear any concerns the government has and take action to mitigate them. But as these projects slowly wind through this process and opponents deploy every stall tactic they can muster, we have people who need the jobs. Another month of debate. Another month of unemployment. We need to take the time needed for deliberate regulatory review but we simply can’t afford unnecessary or unreasonable delays.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Stopping coal exports will not stop the world from using coal. It will only stop jobs and economic growth here in the Northwest.
I realize this is a difficult issue. Those of us in the labor community are friends with many of those who are leading the charge in the environmental community. We are all trying to do what is best for our region, our economy and our environment. I believe we can accomplish all of these.
Lee Newgent is the Executive Secretary of the Seattle Building Trades.