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Wyoming Legislature approves bill to support coal port bonds

The Columbian
Published: March 9, 2015, 12:00am

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming is prepared to up the stakes in its high-dollar push to override local opposition in the Northwest and get access to ocean ports to allow coal exports to Asia.

The Wyoming Legislature has approved a measure to allow a state agency to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to finance construction of coal ports in the Northwest. The bill is before Republican Gov. Matt Mead, who has declined comment on it.

But Mead has made no secret of his support for coal — and his desire to see trainloads of it heading from Wyoming, the nation’s leading coal-producing state, bound for Asia.

“In coming years, I will continue to work with bulldog determination on coal initiatives, port expansion, new technology and value-added products,” Mead told state lawmakers in January. “And in coming years, we don’t need to let up, we need to double down. We must assure coal’s continuity.”

The bill would allow the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority to issue up to $1 billion in bonds. The state itself wouldn’t guarantee repayment. Rather, the bonds would be secured from coal port revenues to cover repayment.

Infrastructure Authority Executive Director Loyd Drain said Friday that Wyoming hasn’t identified a particular port project. But he said his office is eyeing larger coal port proposals now undergoing environmental review in Washington. He mentioned the proposed Gateway Pacific site in Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk Terminals site near Longview.

“If one or more of those ports can get past the permitting stage and get some authorizations to construct, we definitely will have serious conversations,” Drain said.

Wyoming and Montana both are appealing last year’s decision by Oregon regulators to reject a proposal from a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, an Australian company, to build a coal terminal at the Port of Morrow, on the Columbia River. Oregon ruled the project would hurt the fishery in the river.

Julie Curtis, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of State Lands, said Friday that an administrative hearing on the states’ protest is set for December.

Environmental and tribal groups oppose proposed coal ports.

The Bellingham Herald reported last week that the Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe, is pressing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a Gateway Pacific terminal permit application because it would disrupt the tribe’s fishing practices.

“Coal export remains a big threat, people are concerned about it,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, an Oregon-based environmental group. “And there’s a lot of public opposition. And Wyoming supporting these projects certainly is unpopular.”

In Wyoming, Republican Rep. Tom Lockhart of Casper, a former Arch Coal board member, said he believes Asian coal exports would help the environment.

“Wyoming’s coal is so much cleaner than any of the other coal that’s being used in the eastern countries — primarily China and Japan and Korea — that it’s good for the environment,” Lockhart said. “So beyond what it does for us, it provides cleaner coal for the whole world.”

Republican Sen. Michel Von Flatern of Gillette, the heart of coal country, said Wyoming is on track to produce about 385 million tons of coal this year, down from a record 466 million tons that state records say were produced in 2008.

“It will be huge for our basin,” Von Flatern said of opening Asian markets.

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