PORT WESTWARD, Ore. -- This 900-acre industrial park features a horseshoe-shaped dock of timber and steel that juts out into the Columbia River, an hour's drive north of Portland. During World War II it shipped bullets and bombs across the Pacific. Now it's providing ammunition for a new battle: whether to export substantial amounts of coal from the western United States to Asia.
"The channel runs deep here. It's self-scouring, so you don't have to dredge it," explained Craig Allison, operations manager for the port, gesturing toward the dark water off the edge of the dock. "That makes this one of the few sites in the Northwest where you can handle oceangoing freight."
The site is one of five proposed export terminals for U.S. coal, mined from the inner mountain regions of Wyoming and Montana and bound for markets in energy-hungry Asia.
Taken together, the scattered projects offer a kind of lifeline to a U.S. coal industry being squeezed by low natural gas prices and tougher environmental rules, a combination that has eaten into domestic demand. At least three of the Powder River Basin's largest coal companies -- Peabody Energy Corp., Ambre Energy and Arch Coal Inc. -- have stakes in one or more of the five terminals.
Should all the projects come to completion, their combined shipping capacity of 150 million tons per year could more than double current U.S. coal export levels.
But the scale of the projects has also drawn strong push-back from environmental groups, Northwestern tribes and dozens of communities along the coal's 1,200-mile route to the ocean. Worried about the localized impacts these terminals' traffic could have on their quality of life, these groups have lobbied aggressively for more stringent and comprehensive environmental reviews that could delay the projects by months, even years.
After a year of tumultuous weather extremes, the export terminals raise difficult questions about what exports of carbon-heavy coal would mean for the United States' climate commitments. The country's carbon emissions stabilized last year, thanks primarily to the combined influences of natural gas use and a warm winter -- essentially, because the country is burning less coal.
"If you're just shipping that coal to China, have you really made any gains?" said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a member of the Power Past Coal coalition, which opposes the terminals. "There's no doubt that China is going to keep burning coal for the next 30 years, but we're looking past that. The plants they build today in an era of cheap coal will keep them locked in for decades."
High-tonnage routes to the coast
Bulk commodities can reach Port Westward by two routes -- overland by rail or down the Columbia River by barge. Both options are currently under review.
Kinder Morgan, the largest terminal operator in the country, is conducting due diligence on plans to move between 15 million and 30 million tons per year to Port Westward by rail, there to be loaded onto oceangoing vessels.
Australian-owned Ambre Energy, meanwhile, is further along in its plans to move some 8 million tons of coal per year down the Columbia River by barge. After entering the river at the Port of Morrow, that coal would not touch land again until it crossed the Pacific but would be transferred directly onto freight vessels off the dock of Port Westward.
Aside from the terminals at the Port of Morrow and Port Westward, three more sites are currently passing through various levels of due diligence and permitting. Two are in Washington -- the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk Logistics Terminal near Longview -- with one more near Coos Bay, Ore.
Though more modest in scope, Ambre's Port of Morrow project is the furthest along of the five in terms of permitting and could come online as early as 2014, said Ambre Energy spokeswoman Liz Fuller.