Washington appeal of coal port angers Montanans

2010-12-29T19:15:00Z 2010-12-30T11:15:24Z Washington appeal of coal port angers Montanans

By TOM LUTEY

Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Gazette
December 29, 2010 7:15 pm  • 

A Washington state decision to consider greenhouse gases before permitting a river port for Powder River Basin coal has angered Montana officials, who called the move overreaching.

Authorities in Longview, Wash., originally granted a shoreline permit for a Montana-Wyoming coal port on the Columbia River. The coal would be bound for China. However, environmental groups have appealed, arguing that greenhouse gases will result if China burns the coal.

“I'm going to be calling (Gov.) Chris Gregoire, and I might suggest to her that she remind her constituents that they've kept their lights on for 30 years with our coal,” Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.

Gregoire did not respond to requests for comment left with her press staff Wednesday.

“They refused to see the impacts of increased coal mining, more trains roaring through the Columbia Gorge and the effects of mercury on children and adults living here and far away,” said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman upon filing the appeal before the holiday.

The Millennium Bulk Logistics coal facility at the Port in Longview is at issue. Millennium is owned by Australian-based Ambre Energy. Cowlitz County, Wash., officials had earlier approved plans for the facility, through which Millennium plans to ship 5.7 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually.

Under Washington law, the permitting the facility requires greenhouse gases be considered, which officials in Cowlitz County said they did.

On Tuesday, the Washington Department of Ecology petitioned to intervene. The Ecology Department will be asked to issue environmental permits for the project and needs to be sure decisions made in the appeals process are legally sound, said Kim Schmanke, department spokeswoman.

Earlier, the Ecology Department had suggested that Cowlitz County “expand their greenhouse gas emissions analysis more broadly.” Wednesday, Schmanke said the state wanted Cowlitz commissioners to consider greenhouse gases from truck and rail activity related to the port.

“Washington state isn't making a policy statement on the underlying project whatsoever,” Schmanke said.

County commissioners, who approved the project unanimously, said they are confident they did it right.

“I am comfortable, especially based on the legal advice we got,” Commissioner Mike Karnofski told The Daily News of Longview on Tuesday.

Millennium officials had said the port could be operational by the end of 2011 at the earliest. With a spring hearing scheduled for the appeal and a mid-June deadline for a decision, the target date seems unlikely.

“The frustrating part of this whole thing is having a state entity resisting the

development of something based on the alleged impacts half a world away,” said Bud Clinch of the Montana Coal Council.

Earthjustice, in filing its appeal, said Washington's environment would be affected by greenhouse gases from the burned coal.

Clinch said China is developing cleaner technology for burning coal, which should be considered.

Foreign demand for thermal coal from the Powder River Basin is increasing as Asian economies rapidly expand. But exports have bottlenecked on the West Coast where the only dedicated coal port is in British Columbia.

Through that port, Montana exports roughly 3.5 million tons of coal annually, Clinch said. Another 50 million tons of Montana coal is burned every year in the United States.

In Montana, the Millennium exports would mean 100 new jobs, roughly $1.5 million per million tons in state tax revenue and smaller amounts for local governments, Clinch said.

In November, Cloud Peak Energy officials told The Billings Gazette that the Longview port would play a significant role in exports from Spring Creek Mine near Decker. The mine doubled its exports this year to 3 million tons.

PIRA Energy Group, an international energy consulting firm, expects American coal exports to top 80 million tons in 2010, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.

Kate Downen, a spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the senator's staff is watching the development.

Baucus has made Montana trade with Asia, including coal, a priority.

“Max supports developing Montana's abundant energy resources — and that includes coal,” Downen said. “While it's clear that climate change is a real problem that needs to be addressed, it's also a given that countries like the U.S. and China will continue to use coal for decades to come — and there's no reason that shouldn't be Montana coal.”

Schweitzer was less diplomatic, suggesting that if burning Montana coal was a problem, Washington officials should turn off the lights and turn down the heat before deciding the coal port's fate.

“Over in Seattle, at every single intersection, on every street corner, they've got a Starbucks coffee or a Seattle's Best, and they're drinking all that hot coffee and talking about how bad that coal is,” Schweitzer said. “All the while, that coffee was heated with coal electricity that was burned in Colstrip and put in wires and sent to all four corners of that intersection in Seattle for 40 years. That's fine, how do you do?”

Schweitzer said that when Washington crafted their renewable energy portfolio a few years ago, they excluded most of Montana's wind energy, while allowing its coal power to remain.

Contact Tom Lutey at tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288.

Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288

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