Why Christine Gregoire Must Put the Brakes on Coal Exports

When it comes to naming US states that can make a truly large dent in climate change, the Pacific Northwest probably isn’t the first spot that comes to mind. Compared with California, Texas, and the Midwest, Washington and Oregon contribute relatively little to total US carbon emissions. This is partly because of the Northwest’s smallish population, and partly because both states already have rather progressive climate policies on the books. But while policymakers and activists in the Northwest should take pride in what they’ve accomplished so far, their work could soon be undone if the Northwest becomes a globally important coal export zone.

On Tuesday the state of Washington’s Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners put its stamp of approval on a coal export terminal Australia-based Ambre Energy proposes building on the Columbia River. If completed, this export zone would send shipments of coal from the US Powder River Basin to China and other markets on the far side of the Pacific. It would connect one of the biggest reserves of un-mined coal in the world to countries where demand for carbon-intensive coal is growing faster than anywhere else.

To preserve their climate change legacy, elected officials in Washington and Oregon must speak out and put the breaks on this and any other new coal export projects in their states. In particular, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has the power to send a clear message to coal companies everywhere that the Northwest will not become an export zone for dirty fuels that cause climate change. The time for the governor to act is now.

When Cowlitz County approved Ambre Energy’s permit, the Board of Commissioners concluded an export terminal would have “no significant impact” on the environment. This despite the fact that local impacts include dredging in the Columbia River and an increase in toxic coal dust from train shipments moving along the Columbia Gorge. Of even greater importance are the international implications of sending five million tons of coal to Asia each year. When burned this coal would contribute to climate change, and pollutants from smokestacks across the Pacific would blow back to cloud the skies of the western United States. Yet the County Commission chose to make a decision based only on the most immediate local impacts of the project, ignoring the effects of exporting coal abroad.

Fortunately the Cowlitz County decision is not the final word in this debate, and groups like Columbia Riverkeeper will almost certainly appeal the decision to higher authorities. By stating firm opposition to coal export terminals now, Governor Gergoire can send a signal that exporting climate change abroad is not acceptable. The governor should direct state agencies to conduct a thorough environmental analysis of the Ambre Energy proposal, including climate change impacts ignored by the county commission.

In her remaining two years in office, it’s likely no other decision Governor Gregoire makes will have a bigger impact on the global fight against climate change. As a state leader who truly “gets it,” and understands the importance of curbing carbon emissions, she can take initiative and stop misguided coal export proposals in their infancy.

This is the State of Washington’s chance to take the lead and more than ever before play a truly pivotal roll in the global fight against climate change. All that remains is for Governor Gregoire to seize the opportunity.

Photo credit: East Asia Forum