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Environmental opponents are working to kill several proposed terminals that would facilitate the shipment of coal mined in the Rocky Mountains to countries such as China. Environmentalists who scuttled development of a coal-export terminal in Washington last year are back at it in Oregon, trying to keep two ports from becoming transit points for coal shipped to the Far East. But while many local residents share the activists' concerns about pollution, the projects' promise of jobs also resonates widely in a region suffering from declines in fishing, timber and other resource-related industries.

Last year, a coalition blocked development of a $100 million coal-export terminal at the Columbia River port of Longview, Washington by challenging the permitting process that had allowed construction to begin. This month, those same activists filed a petition to stop work on the harbor at Coos Bay on Oregon's coast, then mobilized opposition to two coal projects proposed for the Port of St. Helens, 48 miles downstream of Portland.

At a public hearing Wednesday in Clatskanie, Oregon, five port commissioners voted to greenlight the coal terminal projects at Port of St. Helens, across the Columbia from Longview. It is the first step ahead of what will be a lengthy permitting process. Both terminals would require the approval of several state and federal agencies.

One is backed by Ambre Energy Ltd. of Australia, the coal producer turned back at Longview in 2011. Longview, sited on the Columbia River where Washington and Oregon states meet, was the first coal port proposal on the table. An Ambre subsidiary, Pacific Transloading LLC, wants to lease public property to build a terminal so it can load as much as 3.5 million metric tons of coal annually onto ships that would transport it to Asia. This site has obtained shore permits from the state of Washington, but is already facing legal challenges. Arch recently bought a significant share in Ambre Energy, the Australian company developing this port project.

The project would provide dozens of high-wage jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenue, according to Pacific Transloading. On top of the tax revenue, the company promised to donate 10 cents per metric ton of coal to the school districts of Columbia and Morrow counties—$300,000 to $350,000 to each annually. The coal terminal would be in Columbia County, and trains that would transport coal to St. Helens would go through Morrow County.

A second company, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP of Houston, wants to build its own terminal at the Port of St. Helens, also on public property, to handle some 15 million metric tons of coal annually. Port officials projected the two projects would require hiring more than 100 people.

With unemployment topping 12% in Columbia County, both coal terminals would be welcome, providing "living-wage jobs." Environmentalists' concerns range from coal dust polluting the air to barges spoiling local fishing and tourism to cross-ocean fallout from burning the fuel in dirty Asian furnaces. "
 
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists coal-fired plans in China and elsewhere in Asia as a leading cause of mercury emissions world-wide, a contributor to contamination in seafood. Coal exporters counter that it would be better for the environment if China were to burn U.S. coal, which has a lower sulfur content than the coal it could get from Asia and Russia.

Local "greens" are equally adamant that only strict regulation can protect jobs in new industries linked to tourism and retiree havens along Oregon's seaside, as well as traditional industries such as fishing.
 
The Ambre project emphasized the use of covered barges to minimize land-dwellers' exposure to coal dust for moving coal down to St. Helens each year. On an annual basis, any projects of this size could contribute over $1 million to the county in property taxes.

This month the Sierra Club joined a coalition of Native American tribes, the Seattle-based Earthjustice and Oregon's local Greenpeace office to appeal Oregon's Department of State Lands' permission to allow "dredging" at Coos Bay, which the port requested. The environmental groups said that permit, to benefit a liquefied natural gas operation, may also benefit a secretly planned future coal export terminal.

The Jordan Cove Energy group, a unit of Canada's Veresen Inc, is building an LNG terminal at Coos Bay. The entire project—a $5 billion investment including a terminal and a 230-mile pipeline—won't be operational before 2017. Opposition to the harbor work is "nowhere near critical" to the company's timetable. (WSJ, 1/28/2012, photo courtesy WSJ)