Coal terminals’ death rattle

For more than a century, three currents animated the American West: the railroads, extractive industries and the federal government. During and after World War II, the reach of the feds (think Hanford and Bonneville) swelled, while Boeing and McDonnell Douglas fed the defense industry. This is the paradox of regions like Eastern Washington, the oversized hand of the federal government and the majority population that bites off its fingers. But the rekindled cliches of the 1940s sound obsolete in the 21st century: You can’t fight the railroad or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or Big Timber (remember Big Timber?)

The grand strategy to build a series of coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest, such as the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, traces a narrative arc that could have been hatched by an industrialist 60 years ago. Begin with single-bid leases on public lands — in this case, the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming — in a cozy public-private scheme that rips off the American taxpayer, with Bureau of Land Management functionaries determining fair market value for Big Coal. Then contract with consultants who grease the political gears, ensuring buy-in from unions and politicians. This is how it is, and how it’s always been. Repeat the “you can’t fight the railroad” refrain.

On Monday, Big Coal’s design imploded under its own weight, an historic day for coal-train opponents, when the Oregon Department of State Lands nixed a permit for Ambre Energy’s proposed Morrow Pacific coal export project along the Columbia River. It was the first time a state agency denied a permit for one of the proposed coal export terminals. The first, but not the last. On matters of coal export facilities, the opposition’s momentum is unstoppable. Pubic opinion and public policy align.

“From reading more than 20,000 public comments to carefully analyzing technical documents and plans, this application has been scrutinized for months,” said DSL director Mary Abrams. “We believe our decision is the right one, considering our regulatory parameters laid out in Oregon law, and the wealth of information we have received from the applicant and the public.”

To paraphrase the late Vermont Sen. George Aiken, it’s time for Big Coal to declare victory and pull out. Democratic consultants will reassure Ambre, Cloud Peak Energy and SSA Marine that this still can be won. Forgive them. It’s good money, and they have tuition bills to pay.

Monday marked the beginning of the end. History turns.

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