Activists waging a national war on coal have turned their sights on the Pacific Northwest, targeting proposed shipping terminals in Washington and Oregon that would export coal to China.
They're aggressively lobbying federal officials to change how these projects are evaluated. If they succeed, our economy could become a casualty of the war on coal.
Currently, such projects undergo a rigorous environmental review known as an Environmental Impact Statement involving months or even years of public hearings and analysis by federal, state and county regulators. The EIS for each project must also examine the cumulative impacts of other potential activities in the area.
But opponents want to insert a second, more expansive layer of environmental review, which some are calling a Programmatic EIS, which would have to be completed before each individual project EIS could begin. This additional review would include all of the Washington and Oregon proposals and expand to analyze their potential "cumulative" economic and environmental impacts across the region, the United States or perhaps the world.
A PEIS is historically reserved for assessing the broad national impacts of a federal action or a new federal policy. But the activists want to apply that same scope of review to a local shipping terminal.
For example, what would be the collective impacts on air, water, wildlife and so on, if all the proposals are built? And what are the additional environmental impacts of the coal mines in Wyoming and Montana? What are the additional environmental impacts along the rail lines from the mines to the terminals? How about the environmental impacts of shipping the coal to Asia? Or the global impact of Asia burning U.S. coal?
Opponents argue that all of these issues should be part of an additional environmental review.
Couldn't happen? Think again.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Region 10 office of the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Seattle and the Yakama Nation are among those urging the U.S. Corps of Engineers to change the rules. They want the Corps to conduct a special analysis of the so-called cumulative effects of all the proposed terminals.
Even if this extra layer of analysis didn't ultimately block the projects, it would delay them for years. The opponents' presumed goal is to create delay and legal gridlock, making it so difficult, time-consuming and expensive that the backers ultimately give up.
Call it "death by a thousand lawyers."
Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, agrees that these projects should undergo rigorous review. "However," he notes, "this review should be of the project itself, not of the overall system of commerce across our region, the United States, or as urged by some commenters, the entire world."
Johnson warns that requiring an additional layer of analysis for these projects would set a dangerous precedent in a state where one of every three jobs is linked to trade. "If this precedent is applied to all products imported and exported through our port transportation system, we will bog our project review timeline down in needless process."
Consider the possibilities.
Want to expand an aircraft manufacturing facility? Why not require the study of the pollution impacts of all of the manufacturer's subcontractors worldwide? Why not examine the greenhouse gas effects of jet engine exhaust around the globe?
Would it ever go this far? No one knows for sure, but would you want to take that chance?
For employers trying to decide whether to locate or expand their business in the Northwest, the uncertainty is enough to convince them to take their business -- and their jobs -- elsewhere.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.