In Our View: Northwest takes a stand on coal

Oregon agency\u2019s denial of permit for a proposed terminal reflects regional ethos

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A decision Monday by the Oregon Department of State Lands reflects the ethos of the Northwest and could reverberate in Washington. Oregon officials declined to approve a key permit for a proposed coal terminal at the Port of Morrow in the Columbia River town of Boardman.

The terminal, proposed by Australia-based Ambre Energy, would receive coal by train from Wyoming and Montana, transfer the product to barges, and ship it down the Columbia River to Port Westward, near Clatskanie. From there, the coal would be loaded onto ocean-going ships for a trip to Asian markets.

Sound familiar? Proposed terminals in Longview and Bellingham still are under consideration, and while the Oregon decision has no direct impact on the Washington proposals, it could serve as a harbinger for the future of those plans. Industry analysts believed the Oregon terminal had the best chance for approval, considering it was the smallest of the three and was the furthest along in the planning process.

While a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver has dominated local headlines in recent months, the idea of coal terminals in this state retains a vital interest for Clark County residents. A cavalcade of coal-bearing trains could be headed through Vancouver and surrounding communities and, unlike the oil terminal, they would not be delivering jobs or taxes that benefit local residents. As The Oregonian reported in December, the issue boils down to: "Big business offering investments, jobs and taxes to depressed rural communities, versus the environmental lobby and ethos of the Northwest. This time it's a conflict writ large: Oregon and Washington face becoming a conduit for global warming pollution in Asia when they are phasing out coal plants to reduce emissions at home."

The proposed Boardman plant would export 8.8 million tons of coal annually across the Pacific Ocean. But state regulators said the project "is not consistent with the protection, conservation and best use of the state's water resources." Among the concerns is the damage it would do to a tribal fishery along the Columbia. Ambre even offered the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation $800,000 a year to support the project, but tribal members were not swayed.

Overall, Oregon's decision reinforces the culture of the Northwest, one that is shared by Washington and its neighbor to the south. Opponents of the project had dubbed this region the "Thin Green Line," painting it as an area of resistance between fossil-fuel-producing states such as Wyoming, and Asian markets desperate to feed a growing hunger for coal.

Changes in the market also reflect prescience on the part of Port of Vancouver officials. A little more than two years ago, coal prices were soaring as demand was growing. But, as Todd Coleman, executive director at the Port of Vancouver, told The Columbian's Editorial Board earlier this year, the market for coal is volatile enough to keep the port from pursuing a coal terminal. Now the market has cooled.

Still, the idea of extensive coal transportation through the Northwest remains a crucial issue. The proposed terminal at Boardman has not yet been killed, as Ambre can appeal the state's decision, but the chances of it eventually being built are slim. In that regard, this week's decision by Oregon's Department of State Lands accurately reflects the culture of the Northwest. With concerns about coal dust flying off rail cars and the impact of contributing to carbon emissions in Asia, Oregon officials made the best possible decision for this region.