Fingers in the Dike

Eric Shew News, perspectives

By Ross Macfarlane

This blog series offers stories from the arc of the broad efforts in our region to stop coal exports off the West Coast. While the fight still continues, we have been successful so far. There is no one coal export campaign story because all who were involved brings a unique perspective and played varying roles. For example, we honor the stories from the courageous leadership of the Lummi Nation and other tribal leaders who convinced the US Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permits for the largest proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, WA almost a year ago. We plan to publish more stories in this series and welcome submissions from other groups and friends who are involved in this amazing campaign.

You can read the first installment, Halting the Runaway Coal Export Train here, that sets the stage for the start of  a multi-year effort to stopped what at the time seemed to be an unstoppable onslaught of proposed coal export terminal projects.  

The first formal steps to oppose coal export in the Pacific Northwest occurred in December 2010.  Initially, four organizations—Columbia Riverkeeper, Climate Solutions, Sierra Club, and Washington Environmental Council—joined together for a legal  appeal of Cowlitz County’s permit for the Millennium project near Longview, Washington, represented by the environmental law firm, Earthjustice.  The State of Washington also appealed the permit later that month, agreeing with us that the County should have required a more detailed environmental review and allowed more opportunities for public comment prior to issuing the permit.

When we first appealed Cowlitz County’s permit for the Millennium terminal, many civic and business leaders believed it was likely to be a purely symbolic protest.  The County had fast-tracked the permit decision and appeal, and Millennium was telling investors that it expected to be shipping coal within a year. In January, it proudly announced that the United States’ second largest coal company, Arch Coal, had purchased a 38 percent share in the project.

The first chink in the armor for the coal juggernaut came through dogged legal work.  Our lead attorney at Earthjustice, Jan Hasselman, was poring over more than 40,000 pages of documents when he came across emails indicating that Millennium was misleading the permitting agencies and public about the scope of their export ambitions.  The permit application approved by Cowlitz County described a project to export five million metric tons per year from an existing dock at a former aluminum mill.  Correspondence between Millennium and its corporate parent, Ambre Energy in Australia, however, made it clear that the company had plans for a much larger facility.

The documents showed that Millennium was actually working on a project that could ship as much as 60 million tons per year, 12 times the amount disclosed in the application, which would make this by far the largest coal export terminal in North America. Worse, the home office advised Millennium’s local representatives to wait at least two months after the permit appeal was resolved before notifying state and local officials about their true plans.  Otherwise, an Ambre executive wrote, “Millennium will be perceived as having deceived the agencies” and the company’s “good reputation would be lost overnight.”

Courtesy, Sightline Institute

In February, 2011, the New York Times broke the news about Ambre’s and Millennium’s concealment of their plans for a huge terminal.  Shortly thereafter, Millennium withdrew its permit application after regulators informed them that they faced the choice of denial or starting over.  Although the company immediately began work on a new application for the bigger project (which it ultimately filed in 2012), the initial success on this appeal shook the public’s and regulators’ confidence in the coal export boosters. Instead of Millennium beginning construction and shipping coal, we were able to begin outreach and coalition building around the region.

Origins of “The Thin Green Line” – Powering Past Coal

In the midst of the Millennium appeal in the spring of 2011, we began to learn about other coal export proposals up and down the coast.  In Whatcom County, we learned about an equally large project, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, at Cherry Point, near the Canadian border.  This project was proposed by a large global company, SSA Marine (whose corporate parent was at the time 49 percent owned by a Goldman Sachs infrastructure investment fund), with backing from two of the largest US coal companies, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, as well as the BNSF railroad.

Soon we also learned about proposals in Coos Bay, St. Helens, and the Port of Morrow, OR, and Grays Harbor, WA, as well as companies putting out feelers to dozens of other ports on regional waterways.  In British Columbia, efforts were underway to site a new coal port on the Fraser River (Fraser-Surrey Docks), and expand existing terminals at Westshore and Prince Rupert.

The flood of proposals was daunting and clearly showed coal export’s national and global significance and demonstrated the need for a coordinated campaign to unite local activism with national and global efforts to underway to blunt the power of the coal industry.  Out of this insight was born Power Past Coal, a coalition formed to build awareness of the environmental, health, community and economic impacts associated with these projects and to prevent the coal industry from constructing them.

To date, more than 100 local, regional, national, and global groups have formally joined as members of this ever-growing coalition, with hundreds more businesses, communities, individuals, and local groups coordinating on efforts.  A few years into the coal export fight, The Sightline Institute coined the term the Thin Green Line to describe how residents began banding together to collectively stop these proposals, and that line has held firm ever since against the onslaught of coal, oil, and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects.  From the start and still continuing strong now, the Power Past Coal campaign has benefited greatly from close links with other national and regional efforts, including the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and the many groups working together to to address impacts from coal mining and infrastructure proposals in the inter-Mountain west, including the Powder River Basin.

Coordinating Efforts and Messages across the Supply Chain

While our involvement centered on the growing number of proposed coal export terminals – starting in Longview, WA and soon expanding in Washington and Oregon — we recognized that we needed to link our efforts with other organizations and leaders who were dealing with the impacts of mining, shipping, and burning coal across the supply chain.  From the earliest days of Power Past Coal before it was even an official coalition, we were able engage leaders from regional and national organizations focused on the Powder River Basin, such as the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and many other regional and national groups as central parts of the campaign.

The organizations leading the efforts in the Powder River basin were deeply familiar with the coal industry. These groups had been working for many years to engage ranchers, environmentalists, tribes, and citizens who were concerned about the impacts of coal mining, the vast majority of it happening on public lands with limited federal oversight and massive subsidies. They correctly saw the export proposals as a bid by the coal industry to significantly increase mining in the region just as domestic demand was beginning to decline.

These groups also recognized that exports were core to the coal industry’s plans to build controversial new mines and infrastructure in sensitive areas, such as Arch Coal’s massive planned Otter Creek Mine and the Tongue River Railroad.  Early coordination was key to helping us zero in quickly on the impacts and economics of the proposals.

Similarly, we realized it was critical to coordinate closely and share information with groups working in China and other Asian economies where the coal companies hoped to sell their product, as well as Australia, which was also experiencing an explosion of coal export projects.  Greenpeace’s Asia office, for example, provided critical intelligence on the pollution impacts in China and the trends affecting the Pacific market for coal.  As we got more involved in the impacts and economics of these projects, real world experience from other places where coal was being mined and burned was invaluable.

Next:  The Emperor Has No Clothes

Ross Macfarlane was Senior Advisor at Climate Solutions from 2007-2016, where he managed the business partnerships program and played a leadership role in the organization’s efforts to enact strong policy and move the NW Region away from fossil fuels.  Prior to Climate Solutions, Ross had more than 25 year career in environmental law and public policy.  Ross is a Fellow at Clean Energy Transition and a candidate for the Sierra Club national Board of Directors.