Some things are better with your eyes closed and your brain off. In the case of coal export, it may be the only way to do it.
I don’t see the Northwest making a conscious, fully-informed decision to become a blighted industrial backwater (see, e.g., Newport News VA). The impacts are too enormous. The benefits are too small. The violation of our values and identity is too stark.
That’s why proponents of coal export act like elephants wearing green felt hats, trying to sneak across pool tables without being noticed. We would never choose a future as a coal depot, so the power and money of the coal industry is focused on trying to prevent well-informed decisions. If they can administer a quick slug of general anesthetic, perhaps we can be knocked unconscious long enough for them to begin the operation – a future-ectomy procedure, in which our bright prospects are amputated and replaced by the long, dreary nightmare shovelling of coal into the furnaces of climate disruption.
Two knock-out drugs are already being loaded into the IV drip: 1) coal terminal permitting processes that would ignore sweeping cumulative impacts, and 2) stealth leases for billions of tons of coal from public lands
1) See-no-evil permitting: Applications to build 3 coal terminals have already been filed, and at least 2 or 3 more are in the works. The scope of environmental review for the permitting processes has yet to be determined. But local decision makers in the terminal communities are reluctant to consider the full scope of effects – including cumulative impacts to communities and transportation systems in the rail corridor, the economic security and cost implications of exporting vast amounts of coal, and the significant contribution to climate disruption. As a practical matter, even if these decision-makers try to consider all the relevant impacts, the people who bear many of the costs – asthma sufferers in Eastern Washington, say, or future generations hammered by climate disruption – are unlikely to be well-represented in the review of a dredging permit in Coos Bay or Longview.
Local and state officials are sounding the alarm, calling for a comprehensive, programmatic environmental impact statement to examine the cumulative impacts of coal export. Governor Kitzhaber has been particularly clear and strong, insisting on a full, transparent, public review:
“It is imperative that the federal government take seriously its responsibility to make informed decisions, and that there be a comprehensive look at the energy, environmental, and public health impacts of these proposals before the nation commits itself to this path.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, as the lead federal permitting agency, is balking at the prospect, aiming to minimize the scope of its review under the National Environmental Policy Act. We met with Army brass in the Pentagon last week to discuss the matter. In a reply to Governor Kitzhaber’s call for a comprehensive federal review, Assistant Secretary of the Army JoEllen Darcy made it clear the Corps has a very modest appetite – limited to analysis of dredging, filling, sinking piles and such. What about the impacts to freight mobility, public health, safety, and the habitability of Earth caused by these export facilities? Not their department.
(We happened to be there on the birthday of the Army and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. A tank in the Pentagon courtyard was shooting cupcakes, and the Blue Angels were prepping for a weekend aerial awe-fest. Nothing – except their posture toward environmental review – bespoke modesty on the part of the United States military.)
Governor Kitzhaber, Senator Murray, Congressmen Smith and McDermott, and countless local officials and citizen groups have called on the federal government for a comprehensive environmental review – asking only that coal export be evaluated with eyes open to the full range of cumulative impacts. Senator Wyden, along with Congressman Ed Markey, has asked the Administration for a clear and comprehensive policy framework on fossil fuel exports.
But so far, the word from the Corps to state and local leaders and citizens in the Northwest is: Hey, don’t look at us, we just permit docks.
2) The great coal giveaway: By all accounts, the Bureau of Land Management is set to issue leases for another few decades worth of coal extraction from the Powder River Basin. If past performance is any guide, the federal government will sell the coal for a song. Tom Sanzillo, former Deputy Comptroller of the State of New York, estimates that the market value of the coal leased from federal land over the last 30 years exceeds the price by nearly $30 billion. (The value of the coal in the ground is much greater than the market price, so the heist of public resources is even more egregious. We’ll scratch our heads about the value of the coal in the ground in a future post.)
BLM’s analysis of the costs and benefits of the prospective leases assumed the coal would be burned domestically. The bargain was implied, and politically stable: the coal industry took coal from public lands for next to nothing, and Americans got “cheap” electricity. The merits of this bargain are debatable, especially in light of potential intergenerational contract violations. But the industry now hopes to export much of the coal from these leases. Whatever ambiguous value Americans have reaped from “cheap”, coal-fired electricity would no longer be part of the equation.
Let’s recap: the Feds would lease public land for coal extraction for a pittance; the coal would be transported through our communities, imposing enormous costs domestically, and then shipped to Asia along with whatever benefits come from “cheap” coal; to burn this coal, Asia would accelerate investment in coal-burning power plants which, over their lifetimes, would obliterate any chance for responsible climate stabilization. So, come again, what’s in the deal for Americans who don’t happen to own coal companies or railroads? With genuine respect for the folks who would get the few jobs building docks and moving coal, is this really a good deal for America?
Hush up, says BLM, the leases are a done deal. The agency has declined to undertake further review, despite the fact that their analysis assumed domestic consumption. The Federal Government’s eyes are glued shut, and US taxpayers are sleeping with their wallets out and open.
No way this goes down if everybody wakes up and smells the looting. But so far, zzzzzzzzz….