Mark it down: March 25. That was the day the meltdown over coal-export facilities in the Pacific Northwest hit critical mass. The turning point centers on a wonky message addressed to a low-profile White House functionary (you may exhale now.)
On Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee joined Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in a strongly worded letter on coal exports to Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ.) Sutley, not a household name outside the beltway, is uniquely situated to influence a series of decisions that will shape America’s energy and environmental future for decades.
The CEQ was established though the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), and conceived as the enviro equivalent of the Council of Economic Advisers. Just like the council, the CEQ prepares an annual report and has the president’s ear on big-picture environmental fixes. It also manages federal implementation of environmental-impact assessments, angling to harmonize turgid regulations and the human environment. No small mission, that.
Rather than a parochial focus on permit applications, Inslee and Kitzhaber wide-angle the coal-export debate. They’re asking incisive, weigh-the-outcomes questions. Is it in our national interest, for example, for the feds to help underwrite coal extraction in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana only to export the coal to East Asia?
“As the major owner of coal reserves in the Western U.S., the federal government must consider whether it has appropriately priced the coal leases that it continues to grant, including the practice of granting non-competitive leases,” Inslee and Kitzhaber write. “These issues raise significant concerns that we are subsidizing the export of coal at the same time we are winding down domestic consumption due to serious environmental and health concerns.”
The debate is bipartisan. Are sweetheart deals bleeding taxpayers? In the Pacific Northwest, the lens is narrower, specifically how to “mitigate” for 18 more trains a day from the Powder River Basin to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham. How will this affect families and commuters in Marysville, Edmonds and beyond?
The remarkable aspect about the Inslee-Kitzhaber letter is its frankness, insisting that the CEQ undertake a thorough review of the greenhouse gas and air-quality impacts of coal leasing before “the U.S. and its partners make irretrievable long-term investments in expanding this trade.”
Answering these questions is exactly why the CEQ was created. The onus is now on that low-profile functionary in D.C.