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EPA Protects West Coast Ports Besieged by Coal

CSRHUB | Thursday May 3rd, 2012 | 3 Comments

The following is part of a series by our friends at CSRHub (a 3p sponsor) – offering free sustainability and corporate social responsibility ratings on over 5,000 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies. 3p readers get 40% off CSRHub’s professional subscriptions with promo code “TP40″

Rainforest Action Network projects “Keep Washington Beautiful No Coal Exports” at the EMP and Space Needle. Photo by Marcus Donner

By Carol Pierson Holding

In a long-awaited move, the EPA has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to review plans for West Coast coal ports. Finally, alarmed environmentalists and frightened local residents are getting help from the Federal government.

In December, 2010, I first heard about a proposed coal port in Longview, Oregon and was so outraged that I wrote an article for CSRHub.com. It was so shocking, here, in the Pacific Northwest, a place that prides itself on clean energy leadership. Where just months later, amidst great celebration, Washington state announced it will close its last remaining coal plant.

The environmental arguments against the Longview coal terminal seem indisputable: the coal that would have been shipped from Wyoming and Montana was the lowest grade, a grade outlawed in the US because it is so toxic. The trains carrying the coal would go through the Columbia River Gorge and other environmentally sensitive areas, spreading adjacent land and communities with coal dust.

And when the coal finally got to China, the resulting clouds of black soot could have resulted in pollution so thick as to reduce visibility in West Coast communities.

That Longview port proposal was withdrawn in the face of consumer opposition and a state review. But a new plan was submitted in late 2011 that “dwarfs the size of the original.” The $600 million project would create a port that exports a staggering 44 million tons of coal per year, making it twice as big as the largest coal port on the West Coast, which is located in metro Vancouver.

The strange thing is that even moderate voices in the coal industry question the viability of new coal ports. David Gambrel, coal consultant with many years working in coal companies, cautioned developers in Coal Age to take a lesson from the past. In the 1980s, the Port of Los Angeles responded to the same frenzied level of Asian demand for coal, then from Japan and India. The port hosted a $150-$200 million consortium to build LATX for coal exports and in the early 90s opened a world-class facility. It exceeded environmental requirements. Even tough union problems were overcome.

But several years later, the demand from Asian markets failed to meet LATX’s minimum annual guarantee requirements and the project was shuttered.

The Port of Portland went through a similar saga, investing $25 million in its own export terminal only to find Asian markets to be unstable and unreliable.

And yet, here we are again. This time, coal prices are sky high and many more determined coal port developers are jumping in, including SAA Marine in Cherry Point Washington; the Longview facility which is co-owned by Ambre Energy of Australia and the US Arch Coal; Rail America’s coal terminal at Grays Harbor Washington; and three smaller ports in Oregon, including the Port of Morrow’s proposed development soon to be under review by the Corps of Army Engineers.

Even if Asian demand for coal does stay strong, there are many other uncertainties that make investments risky, including increased competition from Alaska and South America when the Panama Canal widening is complete in 2014, the arrival of larger New Panamax vessels which cut shipping costs but require deeper harbors, and the ability of railways to handle heavy loads and trains longer than 100 cars.

But the most frightening risk of all to the coal port developers is the environmentalists. As David Gambrel writes in Coal Age:

“Finding a site that meets all the physical requirements will be but a small part of the job. Global warming, climate change, and a host of other scare phrases will be used by people who now genuinely believe the Chinese will burn high sulfur coal and send their unclean stack emissions back to us. In many cases their fear is so great they will do everything in their power to stop any new development.”

How right Gambrel turns out to be. It’s those crazy residents and even crazier environmentalists devoted to stopping the coal port developments who pushed the EPA to pull in the Corps of Engineers. It’s amazing what a determined group of people can do, even in the face of the combined forces of coal, railway, and shipping industries. I sure hope they succeed.

Photo published under Creative Commons license. Courtesy of Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.

CSRHub has a Special Issue of Coal Involvement. The 51 companies on this list are involved in the coal industry either via coal mining, production of coal mining-related equipment, coal-based power production, or engineering services. Sources used: Coal Mining Engineer’s ListVan Eck Global CoalPower Shares Global CoalSource Watch CarbonU.S. Energy Information Administration Coal ProducersYahoo! Coal.



Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 5,000 companies from 135 industries in 65 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

CSRHub rates 12 indicators of employee, environment, community and governance performance and flags many special issues. We offer subscribers immediate access to millions of detailed data points from our 140-plus data sources. Our data comes from six socially responsible investing firms, well-known indexes, publications, “best of” or “worst of” lists, NGOs, crowd sources and government agencies. By aggregating and normalizing the information from these sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links each rating point back to its source.



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  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    I appreciate your mentioning the instability of prices.  China is building rail systems to their own coal resources. Once that is done – in about 2015 – they won’t have much need for US coal.

    For US coal companies and their partners – SAA, Goldman Sachs, etc. – this is business as usual.  But at what cost?

    There are no new coal burning power plants on the books in the US.  The US coal companies are looking for new markets.  Coal is so toxic, it is becoming the energy source that no healthy community wants anything to do with.

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision 

  • nunya bizness

    You surely do not understand the global coal industry. The Powder River Basin coal we are exporting from the Pacific Northwest is low sulfur and clean burning. China will burn wahtever coal it can get, and by denying them our clean burning coal you raging environazi’s just ensure that they will instead burn dirty sulfur laden lignite from Indonesia. Indonesia has no environazis like yourself  preventing them from exporting coal from their ports and China has no compunction about burning dirty Indonesian lignite. You NIMBY environazis are erroneously increasing the amount of atmospheric SOx just so that you can feel good about not seeing the coal moved on trains to the electricity plant. Furthermore the environmentally mining practices of American miners are orders of magnitude friendlier to the earth than that of Indonesian Lignite miners. American Powder River Basin coal is the cleanest burning in the world and mined the best way Lignite the dirtiest. and mined the worst Good job you environazi nimbys, now I have to breath SOx and the beautiful  Indonesian landscape gets raped with no remediation afterwards. 

  • Js

    I am 100% agree with Nunya Bizness.  No matter what the Environmentalist do, they will breath exhaust from China eventually. 
    US west – better stop cutting trees and exporting it. 
    Coal will bring new business and build economy. They should learn from China, be united for Country’s progress.