Guest opinion: Washington coal port EIS jeopardizes Montana jobs

2013-12-17T08:00:00Z 2013-12-17T17:43:07Z Guest opinion: Washington coal port EIS jeopardizes Montana jobsBy AUSTIN KNUDSEN The Billings Gazette
December 17, 2013 8:00 am  • 

When the state of Washington announced they were taking the unheard-of step of including Montana mines and transportation networks in the scope of an environmental analysis related to a costal port in Washington, a lot of Montana industries took notice. The move was designed to undermine coal mining in Montana, but the precedent they would set could be used against other industries — like Montana agriculture, timber, and manufacturing — in the future.

At the heart of this issue is whether one state can dictate what is produced in another state. It’s a very serious controversy with thousands of Montana jobs at stake.

Fox cries foul

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has already put Washington on notice that their ploy violates intrastate commerce protections, joining other states that have cried foul over the move. The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing port permitting, has indicated the Washington EIS is outside the boundaries of the law. And a former World Trade Organization appeals chairman has warned that Washington’s ploy could result in international sanctions against the United States for breaking fair trade treaties.

So what exactly is Washington doing that has local, state, federal, and even international governing bodies up in arms? It really boils down to a blatant attempt to undercut coal mining in Montana and Wyoming by preventing the construction any coastal port facilities that could be used to ship that coal to international markets.

Before a new port can be built, it needs to go through the proper environmental review process to examine any impacts the construction of the port may have, and mitigate those effects. That’s standard practice for a major project of any sort.

What makes this case different is that the state of Washington has decided to examine the potential impacts of the commodities that will be exported through the port. That includes analysis of the coal mines and rail networks in Montana, all the way to the power generation of that coal in the countries it’s sold to.

Such an expansive scope is unprecedented in environmental review, and contradicts the purpose of the review laws. Usually, reviews of this sort are done jointly by state and federal permitting bodies — but in this case, Washington’s decision to go beyond normal review procedures has prompted the federal partner, the Army Corps, to sever that relationship. Instead, two separate environmental reviews will be conducted.

It’s obvious that Washington’s expanded environmental review is intended to drag out the process so long, make it so expensive, and insert so many points for litigation to be filed, that those sponsoring the project will simply give up.

The fact that they would go to that extent shows how incredibly broken our environmental laws have become. Environmental review laws are designed to make sure that we’re balancing environmental concerns with job creation. Those laws were never intended to be an outright roadblock to new projects.

Maligning Montana

The state of Washington is also insinuating that Montana is not doing a proper job of protecting our environment. They’ve got the arrogance to suggest that they need to come to Montana to do it for us.

For their information, we already do environmental review for coal mines. We already have environmental regulations for railroads. In fact, I would posit that Montana has some of the strictest regulations related to mining and transportation in the country.

But here we are, with Washington abusing the environmental review law in order to prevent coal from being transported through their state. The prospect of their success is scary indeed due to the precedent it could set. Imagine if trucks hauling Montana cattle could be stopped at the Wyoming border, or if trains hauling Montana timber could be turned back by North Dakota.

That idea that one state can dictate to another economic activities runs afoul of our U.S. constitution. Attorney General Tim Fox is right to fight for Montana jobs, and let’s hope he wins.

Austin Knudsen is an attorney in Culbertson and represents House District 36.

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