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February 9, 2016

On the Way From Wyoming to China, Coal Exports Meet Washington Bottleneck

As more crude oil from North Dakota, Montana, and other states is being carried by rail tank car, the risks of transporting oil have been in the news. Last July a tank car accident in Lac Mégantic, Quebec killed 47 people, while an April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va. caused a fire and led to evacuation of the surrounding area. With less danger but a fair share of political tension, another energy/railroad controversy is pitting the state of Wyoming against the state of Washington.

A firm called Millennium Bulk Terminals is seeking approval for a new terminal on the Columbia River in Longview, Washington from which Wyoming and Montana coal would be exported to consumers in China and other Pacific Rim nations. (Another coal export terminal is being proposed for Washington state, just south of the Canadian border on the Strait of Georgia.)

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, visited the Longview site on June 3 and 4 to build support for the terminal. After his visit, Mead said in a statement that “we have to ensure the transportation of that coal is done efficiently, safely and does not harm the environment.” But his main message was “I want to export Wyoming coal so that we create jobs in Wyoming and Washington.”

During his stop in the state, Mead talked by phone to Washington’s Democratic governor Jay Inslee, who as a House member was outspoken in his warnings about climate change and who said last year whether to approve coal exports was “the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint certainly during my lifetime.”

Inslee told reporters that even if American coal is exported to China “it doesn’t matter where it’s burned, it ends up in Puget Sound.”

Mead said that he “had another good conversation” with Inslee when he visited Washington. “We have differing opinions. But, I appreciated the chance to continue to talk through this matter with Governor Inslee.”

The state Department of Ecology is beginning work on an environmental impact review that will take into account the potential impact from greenhouse gases of burning Wyoming coal in China.
“It is not unusual for the environmental review for large projects to be a multi-year process,” said Department of Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent. The proposal would need permits from a variety of federal, state, and local agencies and those decisions can’t be can be made until after the environmental impact statement process is done, she said.

Putting coal on rail cars and exporting it from Pacific Coast ports may become increasingly important to Wyoming and other coal-producing states if the Obama administration’s new rule limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants goes into effect.

The Environmental Protection Agency projected that under the administration’s plan, domestic coal production for use by the U.S. power sector would decline by more than 25 percent by 2020 and that the largest decrease in coal production would be in western states such as Wyoming.

But at local level in Longview, Wash., the issue is traffic congestion. Cowlitz County Commissioner Mike Karnofski said the coal trains, eight a day and their return trips out, running on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, would go through a six-mile corridor with five at-grade crossings including one heavily trafficked junction where two state routes come together.

“When I talk to local constituents, if you take away the issue of ‘should we export coal or not,’ if you talk about what people really have a deep concern with, other than the philosophical question of coal exports, it is the congestion along that corridor,” Karnofski said.

There is a solution: an $80 million combination overpass/underpass interchange. He said the county would be apply for a federal TIGER grant and wants funding for the project included in a new state transportation package. “This is needed regardless of Millennium. It’s needed even more if you have 16 train trips a day from Millennium,” he said.

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