Climate Change

Proposed port splits Dems over labor, enviro concerns

By Olivia Henry and Rebecca Tachihara

Western Washington University

                 The debate over the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has been framed as Community David vs. Corporate Goliath, rural livelihoods vs. city NIMBYism, high-wage jobs vs. clean environment. The final concept pits two political bases of the Whatcom County Democrats against one another:  unions hungry for jobs and environmentalists concerned about their community becoming the gateway through which coal travels to be burned in China.

 Local environmentalists argue that jobs versus environment is a false dichotomy. They describe the debate as “jobs versus jobs,” citing concerns for the vitality of Bellingham’s redeveloped waterfront, which is divided from the rest of the city by the rail line that would serve the proposed terminal with as many as 20 trains per day.

Nobody, however, is arguing that the local economic picture is rosy.

The debate comes at a time when the county’s unemployment rate has surged from 4.9 percent in 2000 to 8.4 percent this May. Residents living below the poverty level accounted for 15.5 percent of the county’s population in 2009 (the most recent U.S. Census figures available), which was higher than the state average of 12.3 percent, and nearly double the rate of 7.8 percent in 2000.

“Clean coal” technology years away, but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk terminal’s impact

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington University

Washington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.

“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”

Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.

Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.

“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said.  

Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”

Trains' impact on daily life worries neighbors; would they imperil B'ham's $2 B waterfront remake?

By Gina Cole and Brianna Gibbs

Western Washington University 

BELLINGHAM – From its early days as a thriving logging and fishing port, through the decades of housing Georgia-Pacific West, Inc.’s paper mill, Bellingham has always had a working waterfront. Most of those industries are now gone, but even as the city prepares to transform 220 waterfront acres, it has repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain a working waterfront and increase public access to the water.

The plan is still preliminary, but the city has already invested $2 billion in waterfront cleanup to eventually renovate the area with commercial spaces, university classrooms, offices, shops, eateries, a park and even a new public library or aquarium.

However, a bulk-shipping terminal proposed at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, could bring train traffic that many are concerned would interfere with the city’s vision for waterfront development.

Seattle-based SSA Marine, a company specializing in marine terminal operations, is proposing to build a shipping terminal north of Bellingham that could hold as much as 54 million tons of bulk commodities including coal, wheat, potash (a mineral used in fertilizers), and calcined coke (a byproduct of oil refining), said SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole. SSA Marine has already signed a contract with coal giant Peabody Energy to ship 24 million metric tons of coal, equivalent to filling 370 football fields almost 15 feet deep. The terminal would have the capacity to ship double that.

If the terminal were built and operating at full capacity, the coal and other bulk commodities would be brought to the terminal via an estimated 18 additional trains that would pass through Bellingham and Whatcom County, Cole said.

Will proposed bulk, coal terminal face narrow or broad environmental review?

By Carolyn Nielsen and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – The proposed coal and bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point faces a key decision –– expected Friday, June 24 –– as the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department decides whether to require the terminal’s proponents to obtain a new permit to build a pier northwest of Bellingham.

Pacific International Terminals,  a joint venture of Seattle-based SSA Marine and Vancouver, B.C.-based Westshore Terminals, Ltd., submitted its application June 10 for a 350-acre shipping terminal on land and a pier that extends into a newly designated  aquatic reserve.

The company asserts that it already has permission to build the pier because the county issued a permit for one in 1997.

Local and regional environmental advocacy groups are urging the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department to reject the application because the permit was approved under outdated environmental regulations.

A June 17 letter to the county planning department from the non-profit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities accused proponents of trying to subvert updated environmental standards in constructing the first phase of the project, the pier.

Email petitions from RE Sources and Communitywise Bellingham circulated widely on Thursday, calling on Whatcom County residents to contact the planning department and speak out against accepting the application.

Washington eschews coal for power, but lines up to be king of shipping coal to China

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – Coal has fueled American electricity for more than 100 years, but on April 29, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation to end coal-powered electricity in Washington. In an effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Washington’s only coal-fired power plant, in Centralia, is obligated to stop burning coal by 2025.

As Washington stops using coal for its own power, it could begin shipping coal to China’s power plants. Whatcom County could become one of the largest coal exporters in the United States and the largest on the West Coast if SSA Marine’s proposed 350-acre terminal is built at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale.

SSA Marine estimates its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could ship up to 48 million tons of coal to China each year if it reaches full capacity, which the company predicts would happen by 2026.Environmentalists and many concerned Whatcom County residents are asking whether this project fits with the spirit of the new state law. The environmental groups argue that coal, whether burned in China or Washington state, produces emissions harmful to human health.

“A ton of carbon dioxide or a ton of coal burned, whether in China or the U.S., is going to have the same impact as far as climate change is concerned,” said Dr. Dan Jaffe, University of Washington professor of atmospheric and environmental science.

Air pollutants are swept into the atmospheric cycle and have a global reach, traveling from Asia to the United States every 10 days, Jaffe said.

Robert McClure's picture

Should Washington become the king of shipping coal to China?

Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?

Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.

But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal  – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.

Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.  And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.

On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington.  The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.

Byline: 

Bill Gates: Boost federal funds for energy research to fight climate change

There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.

To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”

Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.

“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.

Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.

Gates advocated research into many different energy sources, including nuclear, solar and wind power, that do not produce the gases scientists say are unnaturally heating the earth’s atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many research projects won’t get very far but lots of them should be tried, said Gates, who is known widely for his philanthropy as well as his success at Redmond-based Microsoft.

Byline: 

EPA gives $30 million to Puget Sound; but warming-related acidity attacks the food chain

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it's awarding $30 million to efforts to restore Puget Sound. Sounds like great news -- except that it was completely overshadowed by extraordinarily sobering new science unveiled today: Acidity levels in the Sound, driven by the same processes that are unnaturally warming the planet, appear to be dissolving the shells of oyster larvae. And the weak acid is killing plankton at the base of the food chain -- the one that provides sustenance for creatures all the way up to orcas. And people. 

Imagine a world without oysters. It means a lot more than just forgetting about oysters Rockefeller. Oysters are a basic part of the ecosystem, a big part of the processes that make the ocean what it is.

And then, given the news about the plankton, start considering a world without most forms of sea life that we currently know. It's not a big leap. Even for someone who has chronicled bad environmental news for more than two decades, this is an extremely grave development. 

Folks, this is really significant news. News reports from the Seattle Times, seattlepi.com and the Puget Sound Business Journal -- the early accounts that already are on line, at least* -- seem to count this as just one more strike against the Sound. But it's more. We're talking about harmful changes across the ecosystem at the cellular level. This is huge -- and hugely depressing -- news.