Northwest governors face Keystone-like conundrum over export terminals

Source: Manuel Quinones, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Like President Obama, the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington, John Kitzhaber and Jay Inslee, are committed warriors in the fight against climate change.

But also like the president and the dilemma he faces over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, both chief executives have yet to take a firm stance for or against what environmentalists see as a key threat to global climate — increased coal exports from the United States to energy-hungry markets in Asia.

Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a sustainability research organization, thinks Kitzhaber and Inslee could theoretically put a wrench in plans for three remaining new export terminal projects.

“People are actively debating this question right now,” de Place said in an interview, noting possible political, legal and logistical ramifications.

In Oregon, the Department of State Lands, overseen by the State Lands Board, which includes the governor, is a significant player over projects there.

In Washington, the state’s Department of Ecology is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on export terminal proposals in the state.

Political commentator and consultant Chris Vance, who lives just south of Seattle, sees the governors talking more about the permitting process than possible policy outcomes, trying to toe the line between two important constituencies — greens and labor.

“This is the kind of issue that drives a Democrat crazy because it splits their coalition,” said Vance, former Washington state Republican chairman. “It puts a governor like Jay Inslee in a same spot as President Obama is in over the Keystone XL pipeline.”

John Mohlis, executive secretary of the Oregon Building and Construction Trades Council, also sees a Keystone XL-coal connection. “Yeah. I think it’s very similar,” he said in an interview.

“We’re in favor of the project because they have pledged to use our members,” he said about Ambre Energy Ltd.’s exports plans in two sites along the Columbia River. “They have pledged to build the barges at two facilities in Portland.”

Mohlis’ group is one of dozens of labor, industry and transport groups that have coalesced under the umbrella the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports.

Other members include the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Associated General Contractors of Washington, Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp.

“The Northwest, especially its many rural communities, are in dire need of new investment and infrastructure,” Lee Newgent, chief for the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote Inslee this year.

“The proposed terminals will mean new spending for railroads and ports which would carry benefits far beyond the terminals themselves,” he wrote.

‘Keystone Principle’

But environmental advocates and other opponents of developing the fossil fuel projects — both Keystone XL and coal exports — question the long-term economic benefits, especially in the face of uncertain coal markets.

And while the XL pipeline has grabbed the national headlines — especially because the White House has the clear, ultimate power over its development — groups like Greenpeace and Sightline have called potential coal exports a comparable or even worse climate threat.

KC Golden, policy director of the group Climate Solutions, with offices in Washington and Oregon, has written about what he calls the “Keystone Principle.”

While fighting climate change will take a long time, Golden doesn’t think regulators should make way for infrastructure that will extend fossil fuel use. “We must not lock in those long-term infrastructure investments,” he said in an interview.

Mohlis counters, “I truly believe that Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to Montana, it’s going to be mined, it’s going to be shipped, it’s going to be burned.”

“I don’t believe for a minute that if you stop an export project in Oregon that the coal is not going to get burned,” he said, echoing Keystone XL supporters when talking about the oil it would carry.

So far Kitzhaber and Inslee have not done much more than urge the federal government, through a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to conduct a cumulative review of the potential climate, health and safety ramifications of increased coal exports and mining.

“We are confident that a full and fair and transparent and public disclosure of all the costs and benefits is going to lead all decisionmakers to conclude that this is a bad deal,” Golden said.

Mohlis said of Kitzhaber, “He had made it clear to the state agencies that they were to deal with these proposals straight up. He has told us that consistently. Does that guarantee that he won’t change his mind? He makes those decisions.”

While the governors may not have as much power over whether to approve the projects compared with Obama and Keystone XL, Golden said state agencies will have to begin making key decisions as the process moves forward.

“These are important decisions with some executive influence,” said Golden, “and we are asking and we expect the governors to be fully accountable to protecting the public interest in these decisions.”

Political backlash?

De Place, who focuses more on research than advocacy, thinks the campaign against coal export terminals is well served by the governors staying largely above the fray.

“I would say that it might make sense for the governors to lead from behind,” he said. “The opponents have been very successful in garnering opposition to the proposals. So keep doing that.”

Recent polls by the Pew Research Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center have found significant public support for the Keystone XL pipeline. Many Democrats in Congress also support it.

Similarly, a survey commissioned by the pro-coal export Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports found that almost 55 percent of Oregon voters and almost 57 percent of Washington voters supported the terminals (Greenwire, Nov. 29, 2012).

However, like Keystone XL, where high profile donors and environmentalists have threatened a backlash against Obama if he approves the project, coal export opponents have mobilized thousands of people to protests and public hearings, including residents worried about increased coal train traffic to health workers concerned about dust emissions.

De Place sees any future action from the governors to stop or rally against the projects as being “a lot easier to do when the opposition is well galvanized and muscular.”

But while both sides have aired ads and been outspoken in the media, Vance doesn’t think the advocacy campaigns have been enough to “move the needle” in Washington and Oregon.

He said the rhetoric and spending would have to intensify in order to affect the political prospects of both governors. “They are not doing enough right now to sway public opinion in the major population centers,” Vance said.

Of all the similarities between the coal export and Keystone XL debates, the most important for de Place is that officials have to make decisions about climate change effects on an ad-hoc basis. He wants more action on a uniform climate policy.

“The governors,” de Place said, “are probably more committed to a green economy formation than President Obama is, in my judgment.”