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Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in Seattle on Wednesday to press Washington state for approval of a port for Montana coal, said he wants a level playing field for permitting the project worth millions to Montana's economy.

Schweitzer met with fellow Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire at a law office in Seattle on Wednesday to discuss the port proposed for Longview, Wash. If approved, the Longview Terminal Facility would export 5.7 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually.

Environmental groups are challenging the terminal's permitting, not only for its impact in Washington, but also for encouraging mining in Montana and Wyoming and greenhouse gases in China.

“I don't get the sense from Gov. Gregoire that she's against, or for, this project,” Schweitzer said. “It's her opinion that the environmental requirements of Washington state have to be followed. I just want to make sure we in Montana understand what the requirements are.”

Gregiore told the press in advance of the meeting that she would not get in the way of the project but that Washington's approval process would be followed.

Before meeting Gregoire, Schweitzer attended a public meeting about the coal terminal. While located in Longview, the terminal is not part of the Port of Longview.

The Daily News reported that roughly 75 people attended the meeting in which 20 people spoke against the project. No one in the audience spoke in its favor.

Roughly two dozen protesters confronted Schweitzer in Kelso, Wash, according to The Daily News.

Schweitzer, sitting with Cowlitz County Commissioners who last month unanimously gave the coal port short-lived approval, told the crowd at the meeting that the coal port was about jobs. Unemployment in Cowlitz County is 12 percent and is 9 percent in Washington overall.

“Behind those numbers, there are actually families gathered around kitchen tables looking for work,” Schweitzer said.

Project developer Millennium Bulk Logistics has said the coal terminal would create 71 long-term jobs as well as 120 jobs related to terminal construction at the 416-acre site.

In Montana, the Millennium exports would mean 100 new jobs, roughly $1.5 million in state tax revenue for every million tons shipped and smaller revenue amounts for local governments, according to the Montana Coal Council. Unemployment in Montana is about 7 percent.

Millennium's would-be coal customer is China. Powder River Basin Coal is cleaner than the domestic coal China will burn if the Powder River coal doesn't come through.

The governor has also made the argument that Washington state benefits from Montana coal. Last week Schweitzer angered some Washington residents by stating that Montana coal power electrified Seattle, to which coal opponents said the state got less than 10 percent of its power from coal, Seattle even less.

Utility records indicate that Washington burns slightly less Powder River Basin coal per year than Millennium intends to export. The state has one coal-fired power plant in Centralia that generates enough power to electrify Seattle, but coal is not a big part of the city's portfolio.

However, energy companies in Oregon and Washington have a 65 percent share in Montana's Colstrip Generation Station, where a rail car of coal is burned every five minutes. Colstrip delivers 1300 megawatts of power to the Pacific Northwest, enough to meet the peak energy needs of a million homes in the two states where coal opposition is strong.

Washington now requires state and local agencies to consider greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating projects under the State Environmental Policy Act.

Environmental groups appealing the permit for the Longview Terminal say Cowlitz County officials erred when concluding the project's environmental consequences weren't significant.

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EarthJustice, a group that bills itself as the planet's attorney, contends that county commissioners didn't consider coal mining, transportation or the long-term promotion of coal burning for energy in Asia. Asian countries provided cheap Powder River Basin coal won't be motivated to get their power from renewable sources, the group said in its appeal.

EarthJustice represents Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club, the Washington Environmental Council and Columbia Riverkeeper. It was Riverkeeper that organized protesters to greet Schweitzer on Wednesday with signs reading “go home and stop being a lapdog for big coal.”

Washington officials could not provide another example where mining in another state or greenhouse gases in a foreign country were considered.

EarthJustice attorney Jan Hasselman said Wednesday that there might not be standing for what his group is arguing Cowlitz County should have done.

“Folks are grappling with the questions of how to do this,” Hasselman of the relatively new greenhouse gas rules. “I think you have to analyze the environmental impacts wherever they occur — the greenhouse gas impacts of those trains moving from Powder River to Longview. The broader issue is the environmental impacts of the decision.”

Hasselman said there should be a better place to raise these environmental issues, but without federal policies on climate change or energy, venues like Washington's Shoreline Hearings Board, which will hear the appeal in April, are where it's at.

The proposed site of the Longview Terminal is a former Reynolds Aluminum site on the Columbia River. Alcoa is the current landowner.

After touring the site, Schweitzer said much environmental cleanup is needed, including reclamation of the area used for aluminum processing and the pier pylons coated with creosote.

Millennium Bulk Logistics is owned by Australia-based Ambre Energy.

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

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Contact Tom Lutey at

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.