The economic expansion in Asia during the 2010s ramped up that region’s demand for coal. And the energy resource is in abundance in the Powder River Basin that straddles the Montana-Wyoming border.
But how to get it from the Rocky Mountain heartland of North America to factories and power plants in China, Japan, South Korea?
That’s where proposed coal export terminals came in.
Earlier in the decade six projects in Oregon and Washington were on the table. But one by one, they fell by the wayside. In September, 2017, the last remaining project, on the Columbia River in Longview, Washington, was rejected by the state Department of Ecology.
Each project drew support for promised jobs and local economic benefits. Critics pointed to the potential for negative environmental and human health impacts and traffic congestion. Read on to learn more about each of the projects.
(Hover over markers and click play to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Click "website" for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)
Millenium Bulk Terminals: Longview, Wash.
A $640 million terminal that would eventually have exported 44 million tons of coal at a private brownfield site near Longview, Wash. It's a joint venture of Australia's Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the U.S.
Players: Alcoa, Ambre Energy, Arch Coal
Full Capacity: To be reached by 2018
Export Plans: 44 million short tons/year
Trains: 16 trains/day (8 full and 8 empty)
Train Cars: 960/day
What happened: A series of unfavorable rulings for the project led to the biggest blow on Sept. 26, 2017, when the Washington Department of Ecology ruled the project would have caused "significant and unavoidable harm" to nine environmental areas: air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources, and tribal resources. Less than a month later backers announced on Oct. 24 their intent to sue Washington and challenge the permitting decision.
On April 29, 2017 Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology issued their final environmental impact statement on the project. Its findings include that it would raise the cancer risk for people living near rail lines, create traffic jams with its mile-long coal trains and increase global greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons.
On Jan. 3, 2017, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced his decision to deny a sublease request for the coal terminal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft on Sept. 30,2016. The draft EIS was narrower in scope than that issued in the spring by Washington state. It was favorable to the proposal but cited traffic congestion, railroad noise, and impacts on wildlife and wetlands as impacts.
On April 29, 2016, the Washington Department of Ecology and Cowlitz County released a draft report environmental impact statement. It determined that coal dust, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and traffic congestion are among the environmental impacts from the proposed coal export terminal. In September 2013, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced split from what was to be a joint review process. It conducted a “separate but synchronized environmental review and public scoping process.”
Gateway Pacific Terminal: near Bellingham, Wash.
Seattle-based SSA Marine wanted to build a terminal within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. It would have shipped millions of tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia. The company said it would have created thousands of jobs and generated millions in tax and other revenues.
Players: SSA Marine, Peabody Energy, Gateway Pacific, Korea East-West Power
Full Capacity: To be reached in 2026
Export Plans: 48 million tons/year
Train: 18 trains/day (9 full and 9 empty)
Train Cars: 1,370/day
What Happened: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on May 9, 2016 that it had rejected a needed permit for the project to proceed. It said the coal terminal would have resulted in unacceptable harm to the Lummi Tribe's treaty-protected rights to fish in its usual and customary fishing grounds. A summary of public comment on the project can be found here. On Jan. 3, 2017, the outgoing Washington State Lands Commissioner, Peter Goldmark, announced a move that will make it difficult to revive the proposal: he was incorporating into the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve a 45-acre area where the project's pier was to be built.
Port of Grays Harbor: Hoquiam, Wash.
There are no official agreements or permits for the terminal proposal. RailAmerica, the company that had been considering building the terminal, announced in August, 2012 it was no longer interested. The company previously said it would create 60 full-time jobs exporting 5 million tons of coal. The Port of Grays Harbor says it would have increased annual vessel traffic by 100 ships.
Full Capacity: To Be Determined
Export Plans: 5.5 million short tons
Train Cars: 2 trains/day
What Happened: Rail America abandoned its plans in August, 2012 before submitting a formal application or permit request to start the terminal construction process.
Port Westward: Port of St. Helens, Ore.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan proposed to design, build and operate a coal export terminal at the Port of St. Helens. PGE dealt a blow to the plan. The utility didn't want coal dust interfering with equipment at its nearby natural gas-fired power plant.
Players: Kinder Morgan Energy Partners
Full Capacity: To Be Determined (TBD)
Export Plans: 30 million tons/year
Train Cars: TBD
What Happened: Kinder Morgan announced in May, 2013 it was abandoning plans for the export terminal. It said it is interested in building at an alternative site in the Northwest.
Morrow Pacific: Ports of Morrow and St. Helens, Ore.
This two-port plan would have brought coal by rail to the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore. The Boardman terminal is also known as the Coyote Island Terminal. There it would have been transferred by barge and delivered to the Port of St. Helens and loaded onto ships headed for Asia.
Players: Ambre Energy North America & Pacific Transloading, Lighthouse Resources Inc.
Full Capacity: To be reached by 2016
Export Plans: 8.8 million short tons/year
Trains: 22 trains/week (11 full and 11 empty)
Trains Cars: 1,459/week
Barges: 12 tows/week
What Happened: In August, 2014 the Oregon Department of State Lands denied a dredging permit to build a dock near Boardman, Ore., saying the project “is not consistent with the protection, conservation and best use of the state’s water resources." The Army Corps of Engineers followed that decision by halting its own environmental assessment of the project. On Oct. 13, 2016, Lighthouse Resources announced it was abandoning the project and would instead transport coal by rail to Westshore Terminals in Vancouver, B.C.
Project Mainstay: Port of Coos Bay, Ore.
The port was in negotiations with Metro Ports, a stevedoring and terminal management company based in California, and Mitsui, a large international trading company involved with commodities.
Players: Metro Ports (Mitsui and Korean Electric Power Corp. dropped out).
Full Capacity: to be reached by 2023
Export Plans: 11 million short tons/year
Trains: 4 trains (2 full and 2 empty)
Train Cars: 600/day
What Happened: The Port of Coos Bay was left without sufficient support to proceed after all three of its business partners — Metropolitan Stevedore Co., Mitsui and the Korean Electric Power Corp. — dropped out of negotiations in March, 2013. the port is not ruling out a restart with new or returning negotiating partners. To proceed, the port and private companies would have needed to acquire land on the North Spit from the Port and negotiated a deal over access to the rail line, or decidde to walk away from the project. The Port was seeking dredging permits from government regulators. The dredging would have deepened the channel to accommodate vessels carrying a variety of commodities, which could include coal.
For a broad overview on the forces behind these proposed export terminals, here's a video produced by a team of University of Oregon journalism students and voiced by EarthFix/KUOW journalist Ashley Ahearn: