Recently, Matthew Rose, CEO of BNSF Railway, visited editorial boards in Vancouver, Spokane, Seattle and Bellingham to talk about a variety of issues related to increased train traffic.
However, the 800-pound gorilla in the room was not train traffic, but the commodity those trains would carry: coal.
In Washington, coal has been shipped by train for decades. Currently, about three to four coal trains a day pass through Clark County. Rose said it’s hard to predict specifics at this point, but if proposed export terminals at Longview and Cherry Point are approved, it could mean an additional 12 to 20 train trips per day.
Activists predict terrible consequences for local communities as a result, including traffic snarls, blocked emergency vehicles, derailments and pollution. Interestingly, there’s little indication these activists ever voiced similar concerns about trains that don’t carry coal.
Before the recent anti-coal campaigns, there wasn’t a single complaint about coal dust from the coal trains that have been traveling through the Puget Sound region for decades.
That’s because coal dust wasn’t a problem except near the loading docks at the mines, more than 1,000 miles away. In fact, BNSF conducted extensive testing on 1,633 coal trains and found that sealants sprayed on loaded coal cars dramatically reduced coal dust — in some cases to zero. BNSF now requires all coal shippers to use such treatments.
Trains get bad rap
Ironically, in attacking trains, the Sierra Club and others are going after one of the most efficient ways to move cargo and people. In reality, trains are one of the most environmentally responsible ways to move goods.
One train can move a ton of freight almost 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel. A single freight train removes 280 trucks from the highway — the equivalent of 1,100 cars — reducing congestion and pollution and saving energy.
The Sierra Club has also raised questions about particulate emissions from diesel locomotives. But the state Department of Ecology ranks locomotives as one of the smallest contributors of such emissions among the 19 sources it tracks. Rose says BNSF plans to spend $1.1 billion on energy-efficient locomotives that are expected to further reduce emissions by 60 to 70 percent.
The real issue isn’t train traffic or diesel emissions, it’s coal.
Even though coal produces nearly half the electricity used in the U.S. and the world, the Sierra Club wants to eliminate it, opposing any coal plant, even those designed to reduce emissions to zero.
Asia, particularly China, is hungry for coal. They prefer Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana because it is low in sulfur and produces fewer pollutants. Building the new export terminals that would ship that coal to China will create hundreds of jobs and produce millions in tax revenues for schools, colleges, social services, and police and fire protection.
If the Sierra Club and other activists succeed in pressuring elected officials to block the proposed export terminals, China will simply buy dirtier coal from somewhere else. The problem compounds because those air pollutants will make their way back to the West Coast.
China plans to transition to natural gas over the next 25 years, but until then, U.S. coal is projected to retain the largest share of China’s electricity generation mix.
In the end, Laura Stevens, a Portland-based representative of the Sierra Club, admitted that trains are not the real focus of their efforts, telling The Columbian that the railroads “are something of a middleman” in the coal-export issue.
Unfortunately, we are all caught in the middle — the middle of the Sierra Club’s war on coal — a war that, if successful, will cause severe collateral damage to America’s families, jobs and our fragile economy.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit Association of Washington Business.