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White House Intervenes in Dispute Over Plans To Export Coal to Asia Through Northwest

Thursday, October 4, 2012

By Paul Shukovsky  

SEATTLE--The White House has intervened in an interagency review of industry proposals to ship millions of tons of coal to Asia through planned export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a meeting of senior agency staff in August to discuss the proposals, which come in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Republicans and business groups have tried to focus attention on what they assert is the Obama administration's “war on coal.”

The crux of the conflict is whether the administration will accede to demands from opponents of the export terminals that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go beyond site-specific environmental impact statements for the five proposed projects and conduct a wide-ranging study of the cumulative impacts of all the projects together, including the effect on greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of U.S. coal in China and other Asian countries.

The dispute became public earlier this year when the Environmental Protection Agency urged the corps to conduct a broad assessment of the projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, followed by a similar call from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D). Corps officials told BNA they could not think of an instance in which they had included greenhouse gas impacts in the scope of an EIS.

With the election looming and what appears to be conflict between the corps and EPA over the export terminal EIS process, the administration has declined to publicly define its position. Several CEQ officials and the White House press office have failed to respond to BNA phone calls and emails seeking comment.

CEQ ultimately became involved and on Aug. 8 asked senior staff from a variety of agencies, including the corps, EPA, and the Bureau of Land Management to attend a meeting scheduled for Aug. 10, according to a White House email obtained by BNA.

BLM handles the leasing of public coal lands in the Powder River Basin, which is the source of the coal to be exported.

CEQ Convenes Meeting.

The CEQ email convening the Aug. 10 meeting was written by Horst Greczmiel, the CEQ's associate director for NEPA oversight. It makes no mention of whether the apparent policy differences between the EPA and the corps would be addressed. But the email does call for a discussion of issues surrounding one of the proposed projects as an example of how the administration would proceed “as we move forward with additional [permit] applications, lease sales, mining operations, and potential rail improvements.”

Opponents of the terminals--largely Obama political allies, including environmental groups, elected officials, and grassroots organizations in states considered safe for the president on election day--point to a litany of environmental concerns. Those include the 1.5-mile-long coal trains slated to serve the terminals that would bisect Northwest communities spewing coal dust, which research has shown can pose health hazards. Some politically conservative communities along the rail lines in rural Washington and Idaho that would bring the coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin have also voiced concern about the impact of the trains.

Proposed Export Projects

•  Gateway Pacific Terminal--the largest of the five publicly identified proposals, which would move as much as 48 million metric tons of coal annually from its site on north Puget Sound; http://gatewaypacificterminal.com/

•  Millennium Bulk Terminals--an existing alumina terminal near the mouth of the Columbia River in Longview, Wash., which would be modified to have a 44 million-metric-ton annual capacity for coal handling; http://millenniumbulk.com/

•  Morrow Pacific Terminal--located some 262 miles upriver, the facility would barge 8 million metric tons of coal annually to the Port of St. Helens, Ore., also near the mouth of the Columbia. http://morrowpacific.com/

•  Other Projects--Kinder Morgan, which had sought to build terminal at Port Westward on the Columbia, is seeking a new location. Another facility has been proposed at the Port of Coos Bay, but no application is pending before the corps.

The coal industry--joined by Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway, state and local Chambers of Commerce, trade/professional organizations, and labor unions representing coal, construction and transportation workers--calls the port proposals job generators.

Area-Wide EIS Unlikely.

The projects are before the corps because the corps, among other things, must issue dredge-and-fill permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

Regulatory agencies seeking to conduct environmental impact statements covering a broad geographic area in which there is a focus on the cumulative impacts of several similar or related projects at different sites can choose to do a programmatic EIS. A programmatic EIS typically addresses government policies, programs, or strategies. Such an EIS is regional in scope and can cross political boundaries and cover multiple ecosystems. Several corps officials have told BNA that a programmatic EIS would not be conducted because the corps “does not have a program regulating coal exports.”

Corps officials said they could still choose to conduct an area-wide EIS, which they contend would accomplish the same analytic goals as a programmatic EIS. But that seems unlikely as well.

William James, acting deputy chief of the corps' regulatory program, told BNA Oct. 1, “In the Corps' regulatory program, we try to take a watershed perspective. An area-wide [EIS] addresses programs in the same general area or watershed.”

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export up to 48 million metric tons of coal annually, is just south of the Canadian border on north Puget Sound. About 200 miles to the south--on the Columbia River near its mouth--is the Millennium Bulk Terminal which would export up to 44 million metric tons.

James said he believes that CEQ has held “four or five” meetings on the coal terminals. CEQ meetings do not typically happen on specific permit issues, James said. “Their [CEQ] interest is typically on coordinating these broader, more programmatic issues like energy and coal mining. They are interested in coal.” He noted that CEQ has also been holding meetings to “do coordination with agencies to try to make the review of energy projects [such as electric transmission line permitting] more efficient.”

In a May 3 letter to the corps, Millennium's attorney, Beth Ginsburg of the Seattle firm Stoel Rives, said the corps should not conduct a separate, programmatic or area-wide EIS encompassing all the proposed projects. “Rather the Corps should move forward with the required individual environmental reviews for each project, including review of cumulative impacts,” Ginsburg wrote (136 DER A-15, 7/17/12).

More Than 30,000 Letters Submitted.

A corps spokesman told BNA Sept. 28 that it has received more than 30,000 letters in response to an environmental analysis it is conducting on the proposed Morrow-Pacific Terminal, which would barge up to 8 million metric tons of coal a year from an upstream port on the Columbia to another port near its mouth where the coal would be transferred to ocean-going vessels.

Among those letters was one from Kitzhaber, the Oregon governor, which attracted more media attention than any of the other letters and helped galvanize opposition to the coal terminals.

Kitzhaber's April 25 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as well as top corps and BLM officials, expressed deep reservations about going forward with the terminals without first conducting a programmatic EIS for all the projects as well as a comprehensive policy review.

“I have concerns about proceeding in this direction in the absence of a full national discussion about the ramifications inherent in this course of action,” Kitzhaber said in a press release announcing the letter. Calling greenhouse gas emissions a “major concern,” Kitzhaber's letter said that “if the United States is going to embark on the large-scale export of coal to Asia it is imperative that we ask--and answer--the question of how such actions fit with the larger strategy of moving to a lower carbon future.”

“Further, the environmental effects of further Asian coal-fired generation, in terms of air quality impacts on the west coast of the United States, have not been analyzed,” Kitzhaber said in the press release. “Increases in ozone, mercury, and particulates could have both significant environmental and economic effects in this country.”

EPA, in an April 5 letter to the corps on the Port of Morrow project, revealed what appears to be a markedly different regulatory perspective than the Corps when its asked the Army engineers for a wide-ranging analysis of plans to export coal through West Coast ports, including the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions and the atmospheric transport of mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants abroad back to the United States.

David Gesl, the Corps' regulatory program manager for the Northwest, told BNA Sept. 27 that the corps is still considering whether to conduct an area-wide side EIS to look at the collective cumulative impacts of all the projects.

Corps Considering Options.

“At this point in time, the Corps has not made a decision on whether an area-wide EIS is warranted,” Gesl said. “If we determine during the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process that that is the most efficient and effective way to address the impacts within our authorities associated with this process, we would then go with an area-wide.”

The corps, in concert with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a local county government, began the public process Sept. 24 to determine the scope of the EIS for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The first of seven public hearings is scheduled for Oct. 27. An environmental assessment is under way for the Port of Morrow project. At the end of that assessment, the corps will determine whether to issue a FONSI [finding of no significant impact] or embark on a full EIS.

By Paul Shukovsky  

More information on the Gateway Pacific Terminal scoping process is available at http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/.