In Our View: A Shameful Stance on Coal

Ex-Attorney General McKenna seeks to limit details on proposed Longview terminal

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When it comes to large, community-altering propositions, we believe information is a good thing. That, apparently, puts us in diametric opposition to Rob McKenna.

McKenna, a former Washington Attorney General who was defeated by Jay Inslee in the 2012 gubernatorial race, has been hired by Montana and North Dakota as a lobbyist. Part of his new role, it would seem, is to advocate the suppression of information when it comes to examining a proposed coal terminal in Longview. In a letter to Washington's Department of Ecology and the federal government, McKenna has questioned the constitutionality of the department's "unrealistically broad" review of a proposed terminal in Whatcom County, urging a different approach to the Longview proposal.

The Longview terminal would involve bringing in trainloads of coal from the Rocky Mountain region for export to Asia. The sticking point, in McKenna's view, seems to be the inclusion of climate change considerations in assessing that plan.

Congress "has not authorized states to regulate interstate commerce in relation to climate change, and has not enacted national legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions indirectly by limiting the sale or export of coal," McKenna wrote. We're guessing he didn't mention the 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in its entirety: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." We would think that gives Washington the power to regulate whether or not vast numbers of coal-bearing trains are allowed to roll day and night through its communities; then again, we aren't a former attorney general.

The Washington Department of Ecology, the Corps of Engineers and Cowlitz County are determining the scope of an upcoming environmental review for the proposed $650 million Millennium Bulk Terminals plant at the Port of Longview. A similar terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham in Whatcom County, is under review, and the Ecology Department has said it will examine train traffic and the global-warming impact of burning exported coal in Asia. Montana and North Dakota "do not believe that the tremendous breadth of the Cherry Point scoping decision was legally justified," McKenna wrote. "We therefore encourage Ecology to limit the scoping decision to matters within the jurisdiction of the state of Washington."

Common sense and responsible governing dictate that a proposal to transport up to 44 million metric tons of coal a year through the state — including along train tracks that parallel the Columbia River and cut through the heart of Vancouver — is well within the jurisdiction of the state. Common sense and responsible governing dictate that any proposal that received 163,000 submitted comments to state officials is well within the jurisdiction of the state. McKenna's assertion to the contrary, his willingness to try to limit the process for the benefit of Montana and North Dakota, is shameful.

Odds are that if the coal doesn’t come through Washington ports, Asian markets will find it elsewhere. The question of whether or not Longview is transporting coal overseas is likely to have little impact on Asia’s role in climate change and the vast ecological issues that are permeating those developing economies. Still, those questions must be asked when the state ponders the proposed terminals. Information can be enlightening. Rob McKenna and his clients shouldn’t be afraid of it.

Editor's note: The proposed amount of coal to be transported annually throughout the state is 44 million metric tons. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect amount.