By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The crowd erupted in applause Monday night in Missoula when the Northern Plains Resource Council announced that the Lummi Tribe had prevailed in its quest to protect its treaty rights and block the proposed expansion of a coal terminal at Cherry Point, Washington.
Beth Keading, former chairperson with Northern Plains, said that only leaves a proposed export terminal at Longview, Washington, up for consideration. Other terminal expansions proposed for the Pacific Northwest, including Grace Harbor, Coos Bay and Gateway Pacific have already been denied.
“As many of you have heard, big coal is going bankrupt, but it only protects coal corporations until they can reorganize and shed their debt,” said Keading. “Arch Coal owns 38 percent of the Longview export terminal, and it’s desperately looking for any way it can to have a win and start selling coal again.”
More than 70 Missoula residents filled a room at Missoula Children’s Theater to comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on April 29. The proposal would expand the Longview terminal to handle a capacity of 44 million tons of coal each year.
While a grassroots movement led in part the Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community in Longview has surfaced to stop the expansion, those living along the railline upstream in Montana feel the process has neglected their concerns. No hearings were scheduled in the state, prompting opponants of the Longview proposal to cross Montana to gather public comments.
They held their first session in Missoula.
“Everything they do with coal on the Pacific Coast effects Montana and Montanans,” said Missoula resident Jan Hoem, a member of Montana Residents for a Livable Tomorrow. “The trains are going to go throug our cities. The coal is coming from our coal mines. The coal we ship to China – the emissions of burning it come back to us faster than the ships that took it there.”
Keading said coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming has seen a bellweather change in the market. As the demand for coal in the U.S. dropped, big coal companies began looking to new markets, and found one in China.
China fueled its rapid economic growth partially on coal, Keading said. Looking to capitalize, U.S. Coal companies sought to prepare ports across the Pacific Northwest for export.
But the past few years haven’t been kind to the coal industry. Alpha Natural Resources announced bankrupcty in 2015, as did Arch Coal in January and Peabody Energy in April. The Surface Transportation Board had already dismissed the proposed Tongue River Railroad – a line needed to transport coal from the Otter Creek tracts in southeast Montana.
“While Arch Coal did aks the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to temporarily suspend the permit process for the Otter Creek mine, 10 days before they did, they paid their annual lease on those coal tracts,” said Keading. “That proposed mine is not dead yet. The fight to keep it in the ground is not over.”
Steven Running, a regents professor and climatologist at the University of Montana and the 2007 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that while the coal debate may not be over, 2015 was a good year in global policies aimed at addressing climate change.
The year included the Paris climate agreement signed by 195 countries and a strategic plan by China to reduce coal imports, he said.
“Not only did China sign the Paris Agreement, it has publicly announced that it will quit importing coal,” said Running. “I can’t think of a worse time for America to start building coal infrastructure when the biggest customer has said it will quit buying it.”
Running said the world investment community is also catching on.
“This should be a pretty easy decision,” Running said of the Longview terminal. “This isn’t a terminal that makes any sense in the larger financial picture.”
It’s the same argument Les Anderson and members of Landowners and Citizens for Safe Community have made. The group, which began with three people meeting in a basement, has since grown to 5,000 members.
While the environmental impacts in Montana differ from those in Longview, Anderson said, people living up and down the railline are connected by coal.
“Without the Powder River Basin mines, a West Coast port would not have been viable,” said Anderson. “When you eliminate the possibility of those Pacific Northwest coal exports, there’s no market for a new Montana mine and no need for more coal terminals.
“It’s important to remember we’re all connected,” Anderson added. “No matter where that coal is burned, every human being on the planet suffers the consequences of climate change.”