Coal Exports: An Update On Pacific Northwest Coal Fights


This is a guest post by Josephine Ferorelli, originally published at

There is not enough room in the national headlines for all the battles between fossil fuel expansion projects and climate activists occurring right now. But the Keystone XL proposal’s public comment period ends on April 22nd, so we can shift our focus to coal exportation for a moment. Domestic coal use is one of the few figures that has been steadily dropping, with coal-fired power plants closing in many states, and utilities shifting toward other sources (mainly natural gas) for power generation.

So coal companies are scrambling with proposals to extract coal in Montana and Wyoming, ship it by train to ports in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, then freight it to Asian markets. For a good overview of domestic coal use vs. export written last year, read Ben Jervey’s analysis at DeSmog Blog.

It is frustrating (and terrifying) to devote so much of our effort to preventing fossil fuel expansion rather than actually reducing emissions, but springtime brings some good news from the northwest coast. Of the five port proposals for increased coal export capacity in the US this year, one has lost its investors and failed. The other four are facing serious public and legal opposition, and are destabilized by the shifting sands of corporate prospects; Ambre Energy in particular is dogged by rumors of insolvency. No permits have been issued yet.

One of the most common arguments in favor of expanding the US ports (an argument mostly made by the port developers themselves) is that if we don’t move the coal out ourselves, it will just head up to the ports of British Columbia and leave from there. Eric De Place of the Sightline Institute says the two reasons this is obviously not so are: 1. There isn’t the capacity and 2. the Coal Industry says so. Three Canadian export facilities are proposing expansions, but even with those potential increases they would still be nowhere near able to handle the additional coal that’s intended for Washington and Oregon.

And naturally this reasoning-of-least-resistance doesn’t take civil opposition into account. As in the States, oil and pipelines have monopolized the national discourse, and taxed the capacity of environmental activists, dampening response to the coal threat. And while Canadian permitting law doesn’t have a mandatory period of public comment, and the Harper government is busy making it nigh impossible for non-corporate humans to steward their own lands, many have taken both legal and direct action.  Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, has declared that Vancouver will be The Greenest City in the World, and several municipalities have already passed anti-coal export resolutions. Grassroots groups like British Columbians for Climate Action, Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, and the Wilderness Committee are raising the alarm and demanding accountability.



Ridley Island Terminals

Prince Rupert Port in Prince Rupert, BC,  the former Halibut Capital of the World, population 12,508. It is 1,500 km. north of Vancouver, almost at the Alaskan border. It is the closest Canadian port to Asia, and exports Powder River Basin and Canadian coal through the Ridley Island Terminals. It was state-owned, but last year Harper decided to privatize it as a part of the ongoing liquidation of Canadian assets. Major investors, including Arch Coal, are seeking to expand export capacity from 9 million tons a year to approximately 24 million. Perhaps because of its remote location, this project appears to be proceeding without much of a flap.


Two proposals are being considered for the Vancouver area. One, at the Neptune Bulk Terminals, would increase the existing export terminal’s capacity from 8 to 18 million tons of coal a year. The other, Fraser-Surrey, would create an 8 million ton annual coal export capacity at an existing marine terminal that doesn’t yet move coal. These projects would join the area’s other coal export facility, Westshore, that at 33 million tons a year has the largest capacity in North America. Port Metro Vancouver, the local port authority (which was amalgamated and privatized in 2008), is overseeing the approval process, and has been getting heat from residents and environmental groups for shielding the projects from public scrutiny. (To reiterate, Port Metro Vancouver and Metro Vancouver are two distinct entities.)

For both expansions, the individual ports must apply for permits from Port Metro, but they  conduct their own environmental studies and neighbor notifications voluntarily. Metro Vancouver, the municipal governing body, must issue permits regarding air quality, but Port Metro retains ultimate authority.

Neptune Bulk Terminals

Neptune Bulk Terminals, which is in negotiations to double its capacity, sits in north Vancouver. Port Metro Vancouver stirred up controversy when it approved this proposal; local groups say there was insufficient public outreach before the decision. According to Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, Port Metro both exaggerated public support for the expansion and downplayed the opposition to it . Metro Vancouver has granted this project its air quality permit, and this project also proceeds apace, despite strong local opposition.


This proposal, from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroads and the Fraser-Surrey Docks, would bring coal export capacity to the Docks, moving Powder River Basin coal down the Fraser river by barge. Metro Vancouver board members have opposed this proposal by a narrow vote, citing negative impacts to the local environment, and may send a public statement to the Port Metro, although a final vote won’t be held until the end of April. Metro opposition may yet affect the outcome of this proposal, but the port authority appears to have a great deal of autonomy in this matter, and hasn’t taken public outcry seriously thus far, much of which has come from the coastal town of White Rock.

Westshore-Roberts Bank Superport

Located approximately 20 miles south of Vancouver, in Delta, Westshore is currently the largest coal export terminal in North America, and has just finished an expansion. It isn’t currently shipping to capacity, so further expansion at Westshore would only require more trains to arrive, more ships to leave. In December of last year, Westshore made a name for itself in the area news when a bulk coal carrier ship, called the Cape Apricot, collided with the terminal, destroying some infrastructure and dumping several tons of coal into the Salish Sea. It has plans to spend $200 million dollars in upcoming years for upgrade and repair.


The Salish Sea is an inland sea comprised of the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan De Fuca on the American side, and the Strait of Georgia in Canada, which terminates in the Desolation Sound. The evocative names of these geographic features describe one common marine ecosystem that unites BC and the US. The unified title, the Salish Sea, was only officially recognized by both governments in 2009, and this naming bears the legacy of both industry and environmental action.

For some, the threat of an ocean spill feels more immediate than the looming cloud of climate change. If coal ships can’t always reliably navigate their own docks, increased traffic through our inland sea would become a much greater hazard to marine life, as well as Canadian and American coastal life. And farther along on the journey there’s another risk to coal ships (or oil tankers, or soybean freighters): the Unimak Pass, which is difficult sailing and already very well-trafficked.  As David Ball writes in the Tyee:

“People on both sides of the border – both tribal and non-tribal – are becoming aware that boundaries don’t really matter much in this issue,” Julie Trimingham, founder of the anti-export told The Tyee. “If this region engages in high-intensity trafficking of fossil fuels, we’re all impacted. If there’s an oil spill, it impacts the entire Salish Sea. If a coal ship crashes or diesel fuel leaks into the water, it affects all of our fisheries.”

Eric De Place goes into detail about the history and increased risks of maritime accidents in the Salish Sea on the Sightline Institute’s blog. Local groups with their eyes on the sea include Lopez No COALition, the Lummi Nation Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, the Wilderness Committee, and the Burnaby Pipeline Watch. Friends of the San Juans is working to create the Safe Shipping Alliance of the Salish Sea, a network of groups working across state and national borders. Their strength will grow through the sharing of information, tactics, and human power.


The largest coal export facility proposals are in Washington state, and come from Peabody, Arch, and that dark horse, Ambre. The Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, with a proposed capacity of 48 million tons of coal a year, and the Millennium Terminal at Longview in Cowlitz County, capacity 44 million tons, would both be served by the same train lines coming from Otter Creek, Montana, and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. One piece of Washington senate legislation, SB5805, known as the ‘Pit to Pier’ bill because it hoped to make permitting of mined exports as fast and easy as possible, disappeared after a public outcry.

Gateway Pacific Terminal

The public action against the GPT proposal has been remarkable. In order to establish the scope of an Environmental Impact Study, which is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process of describing the environmental significance of federal-scale projects, the agencies that will lead the study hold a period of public comment. These comments (scoping comments) provide instructions for what to study and where, and also represent the public sentiments about a proposal.  At a Seattle public hearing in December, more than 2,000 opponents showed up to testify and protest, including Seattle super-mayor Mike McGinn, many Washington civil servants, health professionals, and other concerned people, including several road-tripping Northern Cheyenne citizens and ranchers from Wyoming, angry at the lack of a local hearing. There were 124,000 scoping comments posted online, and at least 16,000 of them were substantive. The period of public comment was extended to accommodate the surge.

In each of the five current proposal processes, environmentalists’ goal is to have the Environmental Impact Statements include the cumulative impact of all five proposals. If each proposal gets to study only its own impact, no one is obliged to imagine what the air, water and climate will really be like in ten years. Establishing the scope of an EIS is often a skirmish between environmental advocates and developers. If local residents don’t catch wind of a proposal, the scope will be as narrow as suits the business interest. The most common EIS scoping anti-environmental argument (after straight-up denial)  is that while climate change is real, this particular project shouldn’t be made into an example by being the first to have to include cumulative carbon as an environmental impact. A new directive from the White House Council on Environmental Quality to agencies specifies total greenhouse gas emissions as a factor to consider in approving new projects. This directive is not quantitative or binding, but could be a new weapon in this struggle, especially once a precedent is set in which this guideline helps block or alter a proposal.

Perhaps the Gateway Pacific Terminal could set the precedent: of the 16,000 substantive comments it received, at least 23 city officials, 14 county, 6 federal, 13 state, and 6 tribal agencies commented at great length, many of them demanding an area-wide, comprehensive, or cumulative greenhouse emission review. Some highlights included:

Lummi Indian Business Council– “If constructed, the proposed project will substantially increase the availability of coal on the global market, which can be expected to decrease the cost of coal. As the cost of coal decreases, economic incentives to develop alternative energy sources that have lower CO2 emissions also decrease, which will continue the reliance on an energy source that has relatively high levels of CO2 emissions.

The EIS should evaluate the impacts of the increased availability of coal to global competitors of the United States that would occur as a result of this project on the development and reliance on alternative energy sources, climate change, and particularly how climate change will affect sea level rise and coastal flooding on the Lummi Indian Reservation and the sustainability of glaciers in the Nooksack River watershed.”

Makah Tribal Council–“The MTC believes it is of vital importance that the EIS include analysis…  of the impact of… burning of coal has on our Treaty protected resources.”

The EIS should also evaluate climate related impacts such as ocean warming and acidification, which are already affecting our treaty resources. This scientific reality is compounded by the federal government’s difficulty in providing a coordinated response to these challenges while accounting for our Treaty Rights. When conducting the cost benefit analysis for this project there must be an appropriate accounting for the cost to the marine environment and those business[es], cultures and treaties dependent on an intact marine ecosystem. While we support efforts to develop a vibrant economy, it must not come at the cost of future generations.”

National Marine Fisheries Service– “The transportation of this coal facilitates the consumption of the products, which increases carbon emissions which may contribute to changes in weather patterns, warmer waters, or ocean acidification; all of which can have measurable effects on protected species or their habitat. The NMFS recognizes climate change as a threat to the health of our oceans and our marine living resources. For a complete analysis of the effects of the  project to our protected species and habitats, please provide an estimate the carbon output of burning the maximum capacity of coal shipped overseas.”

National Park Service– “Given the potential for regional export of over 100 million tons of coal per year, NPS is concerned these projects – both individually and cumulatively- could have significant long-term consequences for the residents, visitors, environmental and cultural resources of the north Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest.  Therefore, we believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as lead federal agency, is obligated to coordinate with all involved state and local agencies in preparing a programmatic EIS that rigorously addresses the cumulative effects of all five export terminal projects in the region.  The EIS should fully evaluate all direct and indirect effects of the coal export process, including railroad shipment from the Powder River Basin, terminal operations, marine vessel shipment and resulting pollutants emitted from Asian power plants.”

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community– “It is critical that all environmental assessments be based not only on today’s existing climatic conditions, but also those expected to occur as a result of global climate change. The Corps of Engineers has a responsibility to evaluate these climate impacts as part of the EIS process. This analysis should be based on an in depth inventory of existing rail lines and their susceptibility due to age, construction, and likelihood of failure due to storm surges, landslides, and a higher incidence of extreme weather events.

Because of the enormous volume of comments, the Scoping Summary Report has just now been completed. Now the summary will be reviewed by the agencies who are leading the Environmental Impact Study: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County.

In the meantime, election season is beginning, and in Whatcom county council, 4 of 7 seats are up. Whoever is elected will be voting on at least two important land use permits. These permits are essential to the GPT proposal proceeding, so these council races are ones to watch.

On March 21st, Idle No More marched in Seattle to protest the proposal and its threat to Lummi livelihood and ancestral lands. Since officially coming out against the proposal, the Lummi nation has been a source of the most outspoken, incisive critiques, comments, and public actions. There is a Lummi media event in the works for sometime in August, details are not yet public.

The Millennium Terminal

Millennium has hired a consultant, ICF International, based in Virginia, to run the Longview scoping process, which promises to be at least as effervescent as the GPT. No official schedule of hearings or dates for comment have been announced, but the process is likely to begin as early as June of this year. One major issue has already come to light: if the Longview project were approved, the required rail upgrades would cost approximately $200 million, and that money is slated to be a publicly financed grant from a pot designated for high-speed rail. This externalized cost is, to put it lightly, a controversy. There will be run-up events in Longview and Bellingham once the timeline is established.


Morrow Pacific

The Morrow Pacific proposal is a barge project from eastern Oregon to the Port of St. Helen’s in the Columbia River Estuary, with a capacity of between 3.5 and 8 million tons a year. Ambre Energy is the heavy here, and when the Oregon Department of State Lands requested more information from them, in an unprecedented move Ambre refused to supply it. The request was renewed (serious this time!), and Ambre then requested a four month period to…conjure information? If the permit is denied, this project is over. Whether by chance or by intuition, environmental journalist Mark Drajem name-checks both Ambre and Morrow Pacific in a article on Obama’s National Environmental Policy Act directive, as an example of a project whose EIS might be made difficult by a cumulative scope.

Port Westward

Kinder-Morgan’s Port Westward is another proposal that would make use of the Port of St. Helen’s, this one by rail, and with a capacity of up to 30 million tons a year. The company already exports coal from other ports in the southeast, and has a long, blighted history of environmental abuses that includes illegal dumping, pipeline spillage, and coal pollution visible from space, that Sightline summarizes concisely in this document. Their recent application for a sublease from Portland General Electric was rejected because GE didn’t want its gas plant next to a dirty coal plant. This hilarious irony unfortunately doesn’t signal the end of the proposal. Now we turn to a municipal effort to rezone 900 acres at Port of St. Helen’s from agricultural to industrial, very likely in anticipation of housing the proposed Kinder-Morgan facility. The first two public hearings about this rezoning effort were cancelled.

According to the announcement on the County website the new date for this meeting is May 6th at or after 6:30 PM in the District Court Room, second floor of the Columbia County Courthouse.

Coos Bay

The best news is last: Oregon’s Coos Bay proposal has allowed its negotiation contract expire, and all the partners (Mitsui, Korea Electric Power Corps, and finally Metro Ports) have withdrawn. The Port’s CEO, David Koch (no relation), says the port is expanding, but with no major investments it sounds more like chin-up business-speak than an increasing climate threat. The fact that the first two investors to pull out were members of the fabled Asian market is further counter-evidence to the pervasive claim that Asia is a coal-burning monolith, and if we don’t sell them our sub-bituminous coal, they’ll just burn something dirtier.


The Sierra Club, several Waterkeeper groups and local advocates announced on April 2nd that they’re suing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroads for violating the Clean Water Act by allowing hundreds of tons of coal to enter Washington waterways. This suit could shine a light on the local environmental struggle, and anecdotally, local divers have found quite a lot of coal under Seattle’s Ballard Bridge.

One direct action that is organized by Montana activists but is fun and appropriate anywhere Snickers is sold, is directed at Forrest Mars, Jr., heir to the M&M fortune and major investor in these proposed coal schemes. Stickers read “WARNING: THIS CANDY FINANCES DIRTY COAL ENERGY”, and are available through the website, for your discretionary use.


Washington’s new Governor, Jay Inslee, is a bold climate warrior. He wrote and championed a strong piece of legislation, SB5802, that passed the Republican-majority Senate with only minor tinkering, which establishes a working group to find and implement the best practices for statewide emissions reduction. He gave two hour-long testimonies in the House and Senate in support of his bill, and he will serve on the working group when it is active, which should be by August.

And in response to the Council on Environmental Quality’s greenhouse gas directive, on March 25, Inslee and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wrote a letter to Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the CEQ, asking her to direct the agency’s focus toward coal. They addressed federal coal leasing and the specifics of US coal export proposals, but the letter was advocating that rare and precious thing, the cumulative view. They write:

           Coal will inevitably play an important part in the global energy supply in the short term. However, before the United States and our trading partners make substantial new investments in coal generation and the infrastructure to transport coal, extending the world’s reliance on this fuel for decades, we need a full public airing of the consequences of such a path.

Some critics have complained that Inslee isn’t publicly condemning the export proposals, but if he’s not doing that here, I don’t know what this is about:

           …we urge the CEQ in the strongest possible terms to undertake and complete a thorough examination of the greenhouse gas and other air quality effects of continued coal leasing and export before the US and its partners make irretrievable long-term investments in expanding this trade.


Some relatively mainstream voices are telling us that the Pacific Northwest coal fights are winding down. And still more mainstream voices are saying they’re just heating up, which may be exactly the kind of attention these conflicts need. We should celebrate our gains against climate change, and celebrate the attention that comes to our fight. But in celebrating these victories, we risk easing up when our consistent efforts are most needed, or forgetting that all environmental victories are temporary by nature.

When we celebrated the end of a Gray’s Harbor coal export proposal in August, most of us didn’t expect a Gray’s Harbor crude oil export proposal to pop up quite so quickly. Residents of Olympia, Washington, have noticed ships carrying fracking materials moving through our ports on the way to Bakken and elsewhere.

While this region has a well-earned reputation for environmentalism and efficiency, many of us make our livelihoods in trade and shipping, so we must be aware of and accountable for what passes through our hands and our gates. We’re taking important steps away from fossil fuels ourselves, but if we allow our unusable surplus to be passed on to other economies like so many hand-me-down clothes, we continue to bear that carbon’s responsibility and suffer that carbon’s cost. Let’s celebrate, and use that energy to weave the connections of this movement tighter, so that our bad ideas and moribund products don’t have a chance to slip through.


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