There's no doubt global energy companies and railroads see profits if Washington and Oregon welcome coal exports. But coal backers say they'll bring large-scale benefits, including thousands of construction and full-time jobs and millions of dollars in government tax revenues, to towns and regions that badly need them.
Ambre Energy's "Morrow Pacific" plan to haul 8 million tons of coal annually from the Port of Morrow to the Port of St. Helens would by itself create more than 3,700 direct, indirect and induced jobs in 11 counties, according to an analysis conducted for Ambre by Portland-based ECONorthwest. That plan calls for hauling coal on covered barges from the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Ore. 190 miles down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens, Ore., where it would be loaded onto vessels headed for Asia.In Clark County, where unemployment hovers around 9.4 percent, Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge Lines Inc. would benefit from the coal rush. The 80-year-old operator of barges and tugboats expects to be chosen for the Morrow Pacific plan.
If it works out, Tidewater would deploy its tugs to guide coal-filled barges between the Morrow and St. Helens ports. It would build as many as nine new boats to do the work, and add as many as 90 workers to its staff. Tidewater now employs 235 people.
Dennis McVicker, Tidewater's president and CEO, said his company pays its workers high wages, and the mostly unionized new jobs that would come with the Morrow Pacific project would pay well, too. "Most of these people are going to be boat operators or deck mechanics or maintenance people," he said.
"It's a big project, and Tidewater is the biggest barge operator on this river system," McVicker added. Optimistically, Ambre could start moving coal in 2013, McVicker said. What's more likely is that the company would secure permits by 2013 and begin operations in mid-2014.
For Cowlitz County, where unemployment is 11.2 percent, a coal-exporting plan by Millennium Bulk Terminals Longview LLC would translate into 2,650 construction jobs and 135 permanent, full-time jobs at full build-out, according to an economic impact study conducted for the company by Seattle consultant BERK.
Millennium Bulk Terminals' coal-exporting operation would encompass more than 100 acres of a 416-acre site where the company also plans to improve an existing bulk import-export terminal and to clean up an environmental mess left by former industrial operators.
"We are excited about redeveloping an old brownfield industrial site into a vibrant working waterfront," said Ken Miller, Millennium's president and CEO.
The economic impact study conducted by BERK says Millennium's coal-export terminal would generate "new and significant jobs, wages, output and tax revenue" and that the majority of new jobs created by the project "would be filled from the local labor pool."
Last year, Millennium withdrew a permit to export 5.7 million tons of coal after internal emails revealed the company planned to ship 80 million tons, causing some anti-coal activists to declare the company untrustworthy. Miller said the company withdrew its initial plans after it realized an environmental impact statement would be required to obtain permits. That led the company to step back and "study what the whole of this property will do," he said.
Will demand last?
Backers of coal exports in the Pacific Northwest say coal will get to the countries that want it whether or not it's hauled through Washington and Oregon. "There are coal suppliers all over the world looking for ways to fulfill that need," said Miller, the CEO of Millennium. "If it doesn't come off the West Coast of the U.S., it's going to come from somewhere else."
But some experts question whether China's demand for coal will last and whether the projected job growth from new coal-export operations in the Pacific Northwest will come to fruition.
Paul Thiers, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver specializing in China's economy and environmental policy, said the idea that China is a bottomless pit of demand for coal is a myth. The country's consumption of coal actually dropped in the second half of 2008, Thiers said, and rose only after China pumped stimulus money into its economy.
But that stimulus money also contained funds for energy-efficiency projects to reduce China's dependence on coal and oil. In fact, major portions of the nation's budget are focused on reducing the use of fossil fuels and increasing energy capacity by building up nuclear and wind, Thiers said.
"The national government of China does not see coal exports from the U.S. as a long-term solution," Thiers said. "They see it as very temporary."
Meanwhile, China's economy is slowing down amid weak global markets, Thiers said, all of which points to the real possibility that demand for coal will decrease.
China's concerns about the grave environmental problems it faces hinge largely on how those problems may diminish the nation's economic growth, said Thiers, who recently returned from a trip to the country. "The air pollution has reached a critical, critical stage," he said.