Coal exports could become major business in the Northwest if three proposed terminals are approved for sending shipments overseas to Asian markets.
In Oregon, the Morrow Pacific project would barge 8.8 million tons of Powder River Basin coal per year down the Columbia River from the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore. — if Australia-based developer Ambre Energy can secure state and federal permits.
But concerns about coal dust, emissions and pollution have opponents digging in their heels for a fight. Critics also point to gloomy financial forecasts, warning the projects are nowhere near as lucrative as they were only a few years ago.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River, Ore., will make the environmental case against coal exports at the second 2014 Eastern Oregon Forum on Tuesday at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore.
Kim B. Puzey, general manager at the Port of Umatilla and president of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, will explain the ports' legislative mandate to increase trade in Oregon and how global energy demand fits into the equation.
The forum is not a debate, but a chance for the public to learn more about both sides of the issue.
"It's obvious the industrialization of the planet has put much greater demand on all our fossil fuels, as well as alternative sources of energy," Puzey said. "As a port manager, I'm working in the transportation of those commodities to accommodate trade in a global marketplace."
It is debatable whether individual opinions on coal are even relevant to the port's conversation, Puzey said. Where there is supply and demand, it is up to ports to connect local manufacturers with a broad base of customers around the world.
"This commodity happens to be coal, but we might as well be having this conversation about wheat or paper products," Puzey said. "What is drawing interest in coal is the difference in opinion about the commodity itself."
Coal represents a big threat to the Columbia River, as well as environmental and human health across the region, VandenHeuvel said. A 2012 letter from more than 180 physicians in Whatcom County cited research tying coal dust and emissions with increases in respiratory and cardiac illnesses.
"Many municipalities and citizens are concerned over coal spills and impacts of coal coming off trains," VandenHeuvel said. "This is a relatively new threat we're facing. There's definitely questions to be answered."
Toxic heavy metals pose damage to both soil and fisheries, VandenHeuvel said. Meanwhile, the Morrow Pacific project would nearly double the amount of barge traffic on the Columbia River --- potentially competing with other exported goods.
"There's a limited amount of capacity that can get through the locks in one day," VandenHeuvel said. "We need to make a decision, as a region, what the best use of those limited transportation resources is."
Finally, VandenHeuvel calls into question the financial viability of Ambre Energy and coal exports as a whole.
Ambre Energy spokeswoman Liz Fuller said the company feels strongly about backing from investors at Resource Capital Funds, a Denver-based private equity firm.
In December, Ambre shareholders approved increasing Resource Capital's stake in the company to 26.5 percent. The firm could convert additional debt owed by Ambre into equity per the deal, increasing ownership interest to as much as 55 percent.
Financial reports show Ambre Energy lost $30.7 million in six months through December 2012, though Fuller has said it is not uncommon for companies to report such losses when investing in a project the scope of Morrow Pacific. They remain optimistic about moving forward with permits.
Morrow Pacific is expected to generate 25-30 permanent jobs, 2,000 construction jobs and $300 million per year in economic benefit.