If all had gone according to plan, the Millennium Bulk Logistics Terminal near Longview, Wash., would have begun shipping coal to Asia in the late fall. The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham, Wash., would begin construction in 2013.
Four more terminals up and down the Pacific Northwest would be well on their way to realization, opening a much-needed conduit between coal mines in Montana and Wyoming and consumers in Korea, China, India and Southeast Asia.
Instead, the six proposed export terminals are floundering against an upsurge of local resistance. One project has been dropped, another faces possibly critical delays and the remaining four are tangled in a complex "war of attrition" with citizens groups, environmental organizations and public officials who oppose increased coal traffic through their home states.
The stakes are high on both sides of the divide. Coal consumption in the United States is in steep decline, as the sector is squeezed between ultra-cheap natural gas and tough new U.S. EPA regulations. Power-sector coal consumption dropped 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration, and could plummet another 8.6 percent this year.
For producers in the coal-rich Powder River Basin, which spans Montana and Wyoming, widening Asian demand might offer a lifeline. But to get there, they need access to the Pacific Ocean -- and in the Pacific Northwest, their most direct route, they have met stiff resistance.
Laying down tracks or lying down on the tracks?
In 2010, North Sound Baykeeper Matt Krogh was fighting what he thought to be a small port at Cherry Point, Wash., capable of loading some 8 million tons of mostly wheat and potash. Then he learned that larger plans were in the works.
The proposal had grown, he said, to include a large terminal capable of handling 54 million tons of dry goods a year, including more than 48 million tons of coal.
"By the time we knew what was going on, the companies involved already had their contracts," he said. "This had gone from being an issue of local concern to a concern for hundreds of communities along the coast." The Gateway Pacific Terminal is a joint venture between Peabody Energy Corp. and SSA Marine Inc.
The coalition expressing worries about the terminal now includes the city councils of both Seattle and Portland, the governor of Oregon, 160 elected officials and numerous citizens and environmental groups.
In recent weeks, an intertribal council of Columbia River tribes, along with the leadership of the Lummi Nation, has voiced concern that coal barge traffic could infringe on long-standing treaty rights.
Opponents are concerned about the 157 million tons of new coal that will move through their states if the proposed ports are allowed to reach full capacity. They argue that the additional trains, rail lines and barges needed would disrupt regular traffic, clog the Columbia River and hurt the Northwest's reputation for "going green."
Many critics have also raised concerns about the effects coal dust from the trains would have on respiratory health for communities bordering the tracks. And environmental groups, both local and national, have argued that shipping coal to Asia would amount to "outsourcing" U.S. carbon emissions.
Proposed coal ports hit the skids
While none of these groups have the ability to regulate coal traffic, their combined input has slowed the process down significantly.
Originally meant to enter into construction in 2013, the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point has suspended its timetable pending an environmental impact statement (EIS) from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Millennium Bulk Logistics Terminal at Longview has offered to delay its own exports by a year pending an internal environmental assessment but will likely face longer delays from regulators.
Kinder Morgan's 15-million-ton terminal at the Port of St. Helens was put on indefinite hold in August after Portland General Electric, which holds a sublease on the construction site, raised concerns over the impact of coal dust on electricity production.
And in perhaps the clearest sign of instability among the projects, Rail America scrapped its proposal to build a 5-million-ton export terminal at Grays Harbor, Wash., this summer.
Lobbying for a 'big picture' assessment
The coal terminals have their own ranks of support and are pushing back strongly. Local trade unions, business associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have all joined ranks to back the proposals, which they say would add thousands of jobs to a transit sector still hurting from the decline of the logging industry.
"If the coal companies can't get through the Pacific Northwest, chances are they're going to turn to ports in British Columbia," said Matt Letourneau, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber's Energy Institute. "I don't see how that's a particularly advantageous option for the United States."
As with the Keystone XL oil pipeline a year ago, battle lines are hardening around the issue of environmental assessment. Parties as diverse as Oregon's governor and the Lummi Nation have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a wide-ranging EIS, taking into account the cumulative impacts of rail and barge traffic all the way from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Advocates of the terminals say such a review would be unrealistic and excessive.
It remains unclear, however, what federal or local body will have a final say in the permitting process. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal government has an obligation to regulate projects whose existence affects public health and the environment. That broad mandate, however, leaves wide room for interpretation.
And unlike the fight over Keystone XL, the struggle over the Northwestern ports is unlikely to see intervention from the State Department.
"If we had a federal energy policy, or even a federal energy EXPORT policy ... [the State Department] would likely have a role to play," wrote Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the group Earthjustice, in an email. "But right now there is a vacuum so you wind up with local county elected officials making decisions with global ramifications."
Heading for the courts
So far, the Army Corps has declined calls to perform a wide-reaching EIS, saying big-picture analysis falls outside of their jurisdiction. In mid-September, it announced that it would restrict its assessment of the Port of Morrow to only the construction site itself, dealing what some termed a blow to the opposition.
But according to Mark Squillace, head of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that decision will almost certainly find its way to the courts.
"Most of the case law under NEPA suggests that the government has to consider actions connected to the entire scope of a project, not just its localized impacts," he said. "If a certain amount of coal traffic is going to have an impact on communities along the line, those would be deemed connected actions."
The other side of the argument is the long-term perspective, he said. "If an American coal company enters into a 20-year agreement to sell coal to China, have we promoted development of a new generation of coal-fired power plants?" he said. "If you're going to look at climate impacts, these are the questions you have to ask."