A conservation group predicted that ambitious Asian export plans by U.S. coal mining companies could lead to a more than tenfold spike in coal trains through the Northwest.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils said in a report released Wednesday that roughly 60 coal trains per day could pass through cities including Billings and Spokane, Wash. Smaller increases would be seen in Seattle, Portland and other major cities across the region.
That could tie up rail lines, cause environmental problems and leave local governments on the hook for costly rail crossing improvements, the group said.
The fuel would come primarily from Montana and Wyoming. That's a 1,500-mile haul via Idaho to deepwater ports in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
"Make no mistake about it, this is a huge, huge increase in volume like we've never seen before in this part of the world," said Terry Whiteside, one of the authors of the report.
U.S. coal exports reached their highest level in decades last year — 107 million tons. The sharp rise came even as the domestic market has been foundering due to competition from cheap natural gas and tightening pollution regulations.
For now most of export coal is moving through ports on the East and Gulf coasts. But Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and other major coal miners are pushing aggressively for more West Coast ports.
But representatives of the coal and rail industries said the resource council's report erroneously assumed all pending West Coast coal ports will proceed.
That would entail 170 million tons of coal shipped annually.
"They're assuming all of them will be built and all of them will be operating at full capacity and (the coal) will be traveling on one railroad. That's just not realistic," said Suann Lundberg with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Arch has predicted port capacity could more than double under pending expansion plans. That includes expansions on the East and Gulf coasts.
Rail service for West Coast growth would be dominated by Warren Buffet's Burlington Northern because it has the shortest route to the coast and the most competitive prices, according to report co-author Gerald Fauth.
Union Pacific and Montana Rail Link also operate in the Rockies-to-Pacific Northwest corridor. Combined, the railroads face $5 billion or more in potential needed improvements, the report claimed.
Lundsberg said BNSF dealt with shipping demand increases in the past and can do so again. BNSF has spent more than $36 billion in capital improvements since 2000, she said.
Export opponents are motivated in part by worries that feeding Asia's growing demand for coal could exacerbate climate change. But Fauth and Whiteshead said the local impacts could be severe for local and state governments dealing with the increased rail traffic.
If the railroads won't pay for needed improvements to rail crossings, governments could face costs of hundreds of millions of dollars, they said.
The report said increased exports also raise environmental concerns because of possible train derailments and emissions from diesel train engines and blowing coal dust.
Chuck Denowh with the newly-formed, industry-backed group Count on Coal said the worries over coal dust were overstated. He also said industry opponents were exaggerating the numbers of trains for the region.
"They're continuing to push this notion that there's going to be a train coming through here every minute and it's just not true," Denowh said.