Washington state's new Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has yet to take a strong position on five proposed coal export terminals in his state and neighboring Oregon, despite his environmental bona fides and efforts at controlling climate change.
Inslee, who took office last week, made it his first order of business to urge an unnamed clean energy CEO to set up shop in Washington. On coal, he is taking a more measured approach amid strong pressure to take sides.
"I'm going to give thought to this and frankly going to be talking to some of my legal advisers about this under existing state law," Inslee said during a recent news conference.
This week the Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County's Planning and Development Services closed a public scoping period for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, which would be operated by SSA Marine and take exports from Peabody Energy Corp.
Environmental advocates say regulators had received almost 100,000 comments by Tuesday, many of them concerned about coal dust, increased train traffic and the climate effects of sending tens of millions of coal tons to be burned abroad.
Inslee said, "We've got to have a comprehensive, reliable, consistent evaluation of all of the impacts directly in the state of Washington, which includes transportation impacts."
But terminal critics want a comprehensive review of all the projects combined. They also want regulators to weigh the impact the terminals would have on Powder River Basin mining and the global climate. They call it a "cradle to grave" assessment of the coal export plans.
"We're pretty darn confident that the more people look at it, the more they're not going to like it," K.C. Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, a main opposition group, said in an interview.
Last year Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) sent the Army Corps and the Interior Department a letter calling for such a comprehensive review, one that includes the potential increase of greenhouse gas emissions. This month freshman Rep. Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.) sent a similar missive.
But when pressed about the extent of the review, Inslee said, "I want to reiterate, I have not made a decision on this.
"We are not going to stop using fossil fuels today, or this year, or this decade," he added. "So I don't look at it through that lens. I believe our state is unmatched anywhere in the world in the ability to develop solutions to this problem."
Washington state Democrats have been divided about the projects and the scope of the review. They may sympathize with the environmental and public health argument, but they are also swayed by jobs and the terminals' support from many labor leaders.
Delbene's district is home to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, but it once was in the district of Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, who has expressed support for the project (E&E Daily, May 8, 2012). When it comes to Inslee, labor groups have long been important campaign donors.
Supporter-backed polls have also shown Washingtonians' enthusiasm for the terminal proposals (Greenwire, Nov. 29, 2012). This month the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a lobbying group backing the terminals that includes industry and labor groups, touted a new survey in Washington by Moore Information Inc. that found 77 percent support for individual permit reviews.
But port critics are far from giving up on Inslee. "It's early in the game. He's still putting his team together. I know that it has been flagged in the transition as a high-profile issue," Golden said. "What he has said and what we have called for is a full and complete analysis of all the impacts."
This week the environmental group Greenpeace said in a report that the proposed coal terminals could become among the top contributors to a "climate change cliff." Its analysis said burning so much more coal would make it impossible for the world to meet climate change targets.
The alliance called the Greenpeace report part of a "radical agenda over people and jobs." It touts cleaner-burning plants and says Asian countries will still get coal -- the question is from where.
And this week Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) wrote in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers: "I support this project. It will enhance infrastructure and business activity, produce jobs and economic growth, and increase the country's global competitiveness in all ways."
Mead, wanting to promote mining in coal-rich Wyoming, blasted calls for a comprehensive or programmatic environmental impact statement.
"It would stifle valuable coal exports by purposely including review elements that are not relevant and are aimed at a preordained conclusion," he said.
Environmentalists cheered when Inslee expressed understanding of the potential impacts the proposed terminals would have on climate change and carbon pollution worldwide. He said the challenge was where to "draw the line in evaluating those impacts from any carbon-based system."
He said, "I will say that from what I know, this is the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint certainly during my lifetime, and nothing comes even close to it."
He added that, with his past support for strong action on climate change, he was a "not-so-bad governor on this subject right now."