By Jenny Holmes, PEC Advocacy Committee Co-chair and Former PEC Moderator
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”
Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, January 1998
When social and environmental costs are not considered, coal is the cheapest fuel for generating electricity in the United States, but coal industry plans of the past several years for a massive expansion of coal-burning plants for electricity have been thwarted. Increasingly, wind power is price competitive with coal. Citizen action and better regulation are also key reasons for a decline in coal consumption. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic coal consumption during the fourth quarter of 2011 was down by 18.8 percent from the third quarter of 2011 to 227.1 million short tons.
Rather than allowing coal to stay in the ground, coal companies see a growth opportunity in exporting coal, especially from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. The plan is to transport it on long coal trains and massive cargo ships through Washington and Oregon, and sell it overseas. Some ports on the East and Gulf Coasts currently export coal overseas, but the proposals for West Coast terminals would exceed their volume. In April 2012, Oregon's Senator Ron Wyden stated that a “timeout” is needed on coal exports to consider the implications. PEC strongly agrees. The agency with federal jurisdiction over coal leases in the Power River Basin is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Currently, there is no national policy on coal exports, but clearly the time has come.
The Powder River Basin (PRB) represents one of the largest coal reserves in the world. According to the BLM, coal from the PRB used in power plants accounts for nearly 14% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The nation's two largest coal companies, Arch Coal and Peabody, and the Australian-based Ambre Energy, are working on massive coal export terminals at Longview, WA and Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, WA. There are also potential proposals for many other communities, including: Grays Harbor, WA, Boardman, OR, Coos Bay, OR and St. Helens, OR.
Shipping up to a hundred million tons of coal a year to primarily to Asia through West Coast ports would spread toxic coal dust in rail communities and clog railroads and ports, disrupt traffic at at grade crossings, risk health, pollute air and water, and contribute to climate change. Trains will go through low-income and people of color communities already facing disproportionate environmental injustice.
Investment in infrastructure to ship strip-mined PRB coal through Northwest ports translates into decades of carbon emissions and toxic pollution from new coal plants across Asia built to take advantage of cheap coal. The pollution would come right back to the West Coast by winds across the Pacific Ocean.
Although new jobs are touted as a reason to export coal, committing shorelines, rail lines, and port communities to coal export would foreclose options for more robust and sustainable economic development. Also, the Northwest is known as a leader in sustainable energy and establishing the area as the center of US coal export flies in the face of that image.
Proposals to ship coal to Northwest communities to be burned in Asia are in conflict with with eco-justice norms of sustainability, participation, sufficiency, and solidarity and the 12 ethical guidelines. The guidelines of equity, efficiency, risk, cost, appropriateness and flexibility are especially relevant. By further entrenching the use of coal through exports God's creation and God's people are put risk, especially the poor and vulnerable and future generations. The moral and spiritual costs of coal export are too high too move ahead without participation and consideration of all that is at stake.
Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements (PEIS), under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are needed to adequately assess the environmental and health impacts of coal export terminals and rail transport before any permits for building or expanding use of existing infrastructure are approved. A PEIS considers all of the cumulative impacts on communities and land. Federal policy around the use of coal from the Power River Basin under the Bureau of Land Management and coal exports in general are called since impacts of coal export proposal are so significant.
- Northwest Coal Exports: Some common questions about economics, health, and pollution http://www.sightline.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/02/coal-FAQ.pdf
- Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Coal Dust, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/coaldust-greater5percentsio2/recognition.html
- U.S. coal consumption fell while exports increased during the fourth quarter of 2011 http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=5990
- William J. Bounds and Karen H. Johannesson, “Arsenic Addition to Soils from Airborne Coal Dust Originating at a Major Coal Shipping Terminal,” Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, June 21, 2007, 185: 195-207, http://www.springerlink.com/content/98146r1160021h13/
- Energy Information Administration. Coal information. http://www.eia.gov/coal/
- Bureau of Land Management, Powder River Basin Coal, http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/energy/Coal_Resources/PRB_Coal.html
- Coal Train Facts, Information on the Proposed Bellingham,WA Cherry Point Terminal http://www.coaltrainfacts.org/
- Public Financing: Federal Fair Market Value Coal Leases in the Powder River are a Public Subsidy, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis Training: Financial, January, 2011 http://policyintegrity.org/documents/6.1_Sanzillo_coal_lease_PDF_.pdf
- Oregon Town Weighs a Future With an Old Energy Source: Coal http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/us/boardman-ore-considers-a-future-in-coal.html?pagewanted=all
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Thanks to Dr. Bob Stivers for initial framing and drafting of the introductory section of this document.