2 Northwestern governors ask White House to weigh CO2 emissions from coal exports

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013

The governors of Oregon and Washington are urging the Obama administration to consider greenhouse gas emissions when leasing and exporting coal from federal lands.

In a joint letter to Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) urged the federal government to “examine the true costs of long-term commitments to supply coal from federal lands for energy production, whether that production occurs domestically or in Asia.”

While the letter reaffirmed positions Kitzhaber took a year ago, when he raised similar concerns in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior, it represents a stronger stance from Inslee, who had previously limited his voiced concerns to the localized impacts of transporting coal.

“[Before] the United States and our trading partners make substantial new investments in coal generation and the infrastructure to transport coal, extending the world’s reliance on this fuel for decades, we need a full public airing of the consequences of such a path,” the governors wrote. “Coal is the major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and its share is increasing rapidly.”

Oregon and Washington, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, are reviewing permits for four proposed export terminals that would ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to energy markets in Asia. A fifth terminal, Project Mainstay near Coos Bay, Ore., has been proposed but has not yet begun the permitting process.

Sorting out the role of federal agencies

The Army Corps, which is charged with preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for each terminal, has so far resisted calls from Kitzhaber, U.S. EPA and environmental groups to consider wide-ranging impacts like climate change and Asian coal consumption. The corps has said its mandate is confined to the sites of the terminals themselves.

A spokesman for the Army Corps’ Portland, Ore., branch said that an areawide EIS looking at the cumulative impacts of the projects has not been ruled out, and that the corps is still receiving input from stakeholders

The White House Council on Environmental Quality, to which the joint letter is addressed, has said on multiple occasions that it plays a facilitating rather than direct role in actions relating to the National Environmental Policy Act.

However, it is expected in the near future to complete draft guidance on when and how federal agencies need to consider climate change’s effects in their actions. In their letter, Inslee and Kitzhaber urged that the new policy be applied to the proposed coal export terminals in their states.

 Renewing calls for a comprehensive approach

Backers of the proposed terminals criticized the letter, saying heightened federal involvement would bog down what has already been a long-delayed process.

“Just last week, the U.S. Senate voted to oppose any new requirements or regulations that federal agencies account for greenhouse gas emissions in their analyses under the NEPA,” wrote Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. “Such a requirement could be particularly damaging to the Northwest, where trade and exports are vital to the economy and support good family-wage jobs.”

Beyond the scope of the Army Corps’ EIS, the governors echoed concerns raised by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) earlier this year that coal companies operating in the Powder River Basin could be avoiding full royalty payments.

The two senators, both top members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in early January questioning whether Interior was adequately monitoring the lease sales of federal land in Montana and Wyoming, and whether those sales took into account the higher prices coal could earn on global markets (Greenwire, Jan. 4).