The Army Corps of Engineers today said it would not conduct an areawide or cumulative review of various coal export terminal proposals in Oregon and Washington state.
In a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Power Subcommittee, corps acting regulatory chief Jennifer Moyer also said her agency would not weigh the climate change impacts of burning more American coal overseas.
"The corps has determined that neither a programmatic nor an areawide regional [environmental impact study] are appropriate when considering the proposed permits in light of these [National Environmental Policy Act] regulations," Moyer said in her testimony.
Environmental groups and other critics of increased coal exports, plus elected officials like the governors of Oregon and Washington, have called for a cumulative review, including the potential impacts of more coal use, mining and rail traffic (Greenwire, March 22).
But Moyer said "many of the activities of concern to the public, such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. territory and the ultimate burning of coal overseas, are outside the corps' control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects."
Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) called the corps statement "the right decision." He said such a cumulative review that includes global climate change would have the United States regulating energy decisions abroad.
But full Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told Moyer, "I think the corps is making a big mistake."
"I think you should reconsider your position," Waxman added. "There is no greater threat to navigable waters than climate change. It is the responsibility of the Corps of Engineers to protect navigable waters."
Moyer said the three remaining proposed coal export facilities are in different watersheds and too far away from each other to merit cumulative analysis. On carbon dioxide emissions, Moyer said the corps would look at releases from port construction, vessel traffic or other issues directly tied to the terminals.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) pressed the corps on several other potential effects of increased coal exports. At one point she asked Moyer, "How will the Army Corps study the impacts of coal dust?"
Moyer responded, "The corps is going to look at those effects that are within its scope of analysis."
Debate comes to Capitol Hill
Supporters of the coal export terminals welcomed the statements from the Army Corps. They see a cumulative analysis as a tactic by opposition groups to halt development.
They're touting a new study by Western Washington University international business professor Steven Globerman commissioned by the Washington State Farm Bureau. It said the economic benefits of increased coal exports are often underestimated.
"Coal exports are making significant contributions to America's economic growth and job creation in the coal fields and beyond," said National Mining Association chief Hal Quinn. "With the right public policies, we can double that contribution and provide more Americans the opportunities for high wage and highly skilled jobs."
Coal export skeptics, however, pounced on the corps for its decision against a cumulative and climate review. They vowed to turn their attention to state and local agencies that are also reviewing the proposed terminals.
"It is ironic that today the Army Corps also announced the need for a stronger levee system because of growing climate impacts," KC Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, said in response to the corps' announcement.
"It will be a sad day for America and a tragic reversal for the Northwest if, a few short years from now, our children can stand on our shores, watching ships sail in from Asia with solar panels and wind turbine blades and flat-screen TVs, passing ships sailing from America, loaded with coal," he said in testimony to lawmakers. "This is not our best future."
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (D), who has been increasingly vocal about the potential negative impacts of coal exports, also testified today.
"The corporations that want to export coal through our communities want us to believe that there's nothing wrong with their plans. But it is my job as mayor of Seattle to stand up to protect our community from these coal export facilities and associated rail traffic," he said. "We need an areawide environmental impact statement to evaluate the local, regional and global impacts of coal export."
The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a group of mining, labor and shipping interests, shot back: "In his testimony, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn offers unsubstantiated facts and ignores the truth that surveys show that the vast majority of Washington state voters support the development of new bulk commodity terminals at existing ports."
Most U.S. coal exports leave the nation through ports in the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. And the debate over an increase in shipments has taken place primarily in the Pacific Northwest with companies wanting to send more coal to energy-hungry Asia.
Many leaders in the Powder River Basin are keen on increased exports as a means of economic development in the area. This week, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) was in Canada touring facilities that export U.S. coal to Asia and meeting with affected communities.
The White House has kept the coal export debate at arm's length, at least publicly. And much of the discussion in Washington, D.C., has centered on natural gas exports. But a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel may soon follow today's House hearing.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) yesterday reintroduced legislation to tax the coal industry to help mitigate the impacts of coal transport and shipment. Companies would have to pay $10 for each ton of coal extracted.
Environmental groups have long been fighting coal mining in Western states like Wyoming and Montana, and they have redoubled their efforts amid the increase in exports.
This week they are opposing a vote by the Powder River Regional Coal Team, which may approve moving forward with leasing almost 200 million tons of coal in Montana, potentially expanding Cloud Peak Energy Inc.'s Spring Creek mine.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.