As long as we’re talking about bubbles, perhaps those of us in Snohomish and King counties ought to take a look outside ours to other parts of the state that aren’t sharing in all aspects of the state’s economic rebound.
Both counties enjoy the state’s lowest unemployment rates as of October: 4 percent in Snohomish County and 3.7 percent in King. Counties in southwest Washington, however, continue to lag with unemployment rates of 6 percent in Clark, 7.2 percent in Cowlitz, 7.6 percent in Lewis and 8.6 percent in Wahkiakum County.
The Daily News in Longview in Cowlitz County recently dug into economic data and found that since 1990, the region’s average hourly wage had increased only 17 percent to $26.08 an hour, while the state average had increased 47.5 percent to $32.98 an hour.
Those numbers explain the support in that region for the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, a project to clean up and repurpose the site of the former Reynolds Aluminum smelter, expanding its facilities as a export terminal for coal and other bulk products, such as wheat, timber, alumina and apples.
The economic boost for southwest Washington would be considerable. The $680 million project would generate 1,000 direct construction jobs during the estimated six years it would take to build and 135 permanent jobs after construction is finished. And it would result in $43.1 million in state and local tax revenue during construction and $5.4 million in annual tax revenue when operational.
The are environmental concerns, but as with all such projects, those are being addressed. With the Millennium project, they’ve been addressed exhaustively. Environmental reviews by state and federal agencies have now taken more than four and a half years.
An end to that process should be in sight; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft Environmental Impact Statement at the end of September and is accepting public comments until Nov. 29. Cowlitz County and the state Department of Ecology have prepared their own environmental review, the comment period for which has ended, and are expected to release the final review later in 2017.
But the state’s review has raised concerns among project supporters that Millennium’s impacts have been expanded to include the entire life cycle of the coal that will be exported, from the mines of Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to coal-fired plants in China. The Alliance of Northwest Jobs and Exports, a trade group of industries and unions, said the state’s analysis would require Millennium to mitigate for 1.27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, even though the facility itself would only produce 919 tons of greenhouse gases.
Such a life-cycle review of the coal exported by the project wasn’t envisioned when the permitting process began. The goal posts, supporters claim, were moved.
Millennium, like any project, should be expected to address and mitigate the potential impacts to the environment and the health and safety of its communities, but there should be reasonable limits to the impacts all projects have to address.
There isn’t such a thing as “clean” coal, but the coal that would be shipped through Longview does have a lower sulphur content than China’s domestically mined coal. And China, the largest carbon-emitter, is making progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to peak its carbon emissions between 2025 and 2030. And it recently ratified the Paris Agreement, even as President-elect Donald Trump waffles on climate change.
There’s no reason to make Millennium pay for China’s climate responsibilities.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who has worked to set hard limits on greenhouse gases, told the Longview newspaper that the Millennium review has been thorough: “The permitting process has been a very extensive process.”
At the same time, in the interest of protecting the environmental permit process itself, state officials need to keep environmental reviews stringent but fair and focused on actual impacts. If Millennium is expected to address the effects of coal from mine to furnace, than so to would most any commercial or industrial project have to account for its energy use.
The future of coal is uncertain. Chinese coal markets have cooled, and prices have dropped by half since 2011. Work needs to continue to develop and promote energy sources that are clean and renewable, ultimately making coal unprofitable to remove from the ground. But for now, coal remains in the mix.
Southwest Washington should be allowed to reap the jobs that the Millennium terminal can provide.