Across the country, we’re seeing good news about the future of coal. This week, FirstEnergy announced the retirement of six coal fired power plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. We can all breathe a little easier knowing that domestic coal use is on the decline.
Coal mining executives, however, aren’t so relieved. That’s why they’re scrambling to find a fire exit and new markets to sell their rocks.
International coal companies like Ambre Energy and Kinder Morgan are courting port sites in Oregon and Washington to export millions of tons of coal to Asia. This coal will be strip mined in the wilderness of Montana and Wyoming, carted on mile-long trains through the pristine Columbia River Gorge, and shipped in massive tankers to fuel coal-fired power plants in China, India, and elsewhere.
For almost a year, all eyes were on the proposed Cherry Point Terminal near Bellingham, WA. (See here for a great NPR piece, if you want to get caught up to speed.) However, coal companies have also been engaged in behind-closed-doors talks with port commissioners at the ports of Coos Bay and St. Helens in Oregon.
On January 17th, Greenpeace joined a lawsuit challenging a massive dredging permit issued to the Port of Coos Bay that could facilitate coal export, only to hear news of two export projects being proposed at the Port of St. Helens.
Just over a week later, with no room for sincere public input, the port commissioners at the Port of St Helens approved both proposals, giving Ambre and Kinder Morgan the ability to export up to 38 million tons of coal per year through that Port. (see here and here)
To put that in perspective, 38 million tons is about 20 times the annual coal use of Oregon’s Boardman coal plant (scheduled to retire in 2020), and that much coal, on that many trains, through dozens of communities is a recipe for serious health and environmental impacts. Even worse, this sets a dangerous precedent for the future of other coal export sites in the region. If the coal industry succeeds in making the Pacific Northwest into a massive coal superhighway, it could have a bigger climate impact than the Keystone XL pipeline.
In summary, a huge decision, with local, regional, and global impacts, was made in backroom discussions between port officials and coal industry lobbyists. And this happened after Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber went on the record to state “[the development of a terminal] should not happen in the dead of night. We must have an open, vigorous public debate before any projects move forward.”
As an elected official concerned about public health — and as a doctor who understands the health risks massive coal export projects pose — Governor Kitzhaber needs to take a strong stand by doing everything in his power to stop these projects before they start.
We can’t allow a handful of coal lobbyists to decide what’s best for our future.