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Wyoming and Montana lawmakers are attempting to clear the way for a coal export terminal in Longview, Washington.

Republican Sens. John Barrasso, of Wyoming, and Steve Daines, of Montana, say the federal Clean Water Act is being abused to stop permitting for Millennium Bulk Terminal, a would-be Columbia River coal port that would ship Powder River Basin coal to the Asian Pacific.

At issue is Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which empowers states to rule on projects that could affect their waterways. Washington state used the authority to reject Millennium Terminal, a project tied to Salt Lake City-based Lighthouse Resources. Lighthouse operates Black Butte Mine in Wyoming and Decker Mine in Montana.

Lighthouse sued Washington over the permit denial, but lost the case in December. The mining company argued that Washington had supplanted federal commerce laws in denying the permit.

“Washington state has hijacked the water quality certification process and blocked Wyoming coal from being exported,” Barrasso said in a press release. “Workers across the West would benefit from the coal export terminal Washington state has blocked. Washington state’s obstruction is about politics, not water quality.”

This is Barrasso’s second attempt to limit what states can do under the Clean Water Act. Last year, a similar bill introduced in July 2018 received a hearing, but moved no further.

“Montana has the opportunity to help keep the U.S. energy dominant and expand our economic opportunities through trade,” Daines said in an email. “This bill will ensure that the energy market in Montana reaches its full potential by streamlining regulations that have been abused by activist bureaucrats and killed Montana jobs. It will spur high-paying jobs in Montana, empower our tribes and strengthen our nation’s standing as a world economic superpower.”

Coal exports have become an important supplement to the region’s natural resource economy, but have shown limits, mainly related to the shipping costs. Australia, the world’s largest coal-exporting country, is closer to Asian Pacific markets. Indonesian coal also has a market advantage of proximity over U.S. coal.

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Powder River Basin exports do well when coal prices are high, but have stopped when market prices are too low to make shipping coal profitable.

In 2015, coal exports were uneconomical, prompting regional coal mining companies Cloud Peak Energy and Signal Peak to stop shipping coal. The companies paid Canadian-based port Westshore Terminal for unused space and kept their coal off rail. Conditions didn’t improve until the final quarter of 2016.

Westshore Terminal, which is the only available port in the Pacific NorthWest, and Millennium Terminal are roughly the same distance from the Powder River Basin.

Daines is a co-sponsor of the Barrasso bill. Other co-sponsors include Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma; Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia; Mike Enzi, of Wyoming; and Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.