"Logistically, most of our infrastructure challenges have been overcome at this point," she said. "We operate a little bit differently out here because culturally, the Northwest has very high standards for environmental safety, and we've incorporated those standards into our design."
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting an environmental assessment for the Port of Morrow site and weighing the need for a lengthier, site-specific environmental impact statement (EIS).
So far, it has resisted calls from environmental groups, U.S. EPA, the governor of Oregon and a host of other environmental and civic groups to conduct a broad-gauge EIS for all five of the proposed projects.
Such a review would consider the combined effects of all five terminals on the Northwest and could even consider the climate impacts of burning U.S. fossil fuels abroad.
Price signals promote exports
This approach is rejected by proponents of the terminals, including the coal companies themselves. "A cumulative EIS would not be in keeping with what the Army Corps has required for similar projects in the past," Fuller said. "It would slow our project down by years."
Time is not something U.S. coal can afford. Thanks to low gas prices and stringent new EPA regulations, coal use in the United States has entered a steady downward trend, and production is following suit. The Energy Information Administration's most recent quarterly coal report puts production at 5.8 percent below the same quarter last year, and 14 percent below the same quarter in 2008.
The declines have been partially offset by a rise in exports, particularly to Europe (ClimateWire, Nov. 8, 2012). That trend may reverse, however, if slumping prices for European carbon credits rally this year, as many analysts expect.
And with many U.S. coal-fired power plants slated to retire over the coming decade, only Asian demand offers the kind of security energy companies need to make long-term investments in infrastructure (ClimateWire, Nov. 13, 2012).
Yet that reorganization is exactly what environmental groups opposing the coal terminals hope to block. Though proponents of the coal terminals say Asia's consumption is unlikely to be influenced by the absence or presence of additional U.S. supply, opponents insist that the United States has to be held accountable for the carbon it exports as well as the carbon it burns.
"Opening up huge new supplies of coal to China from the Powder River Basin would lead to lower prices -- it's a simple function of supply and demand," said Power Past Coal's VandenHeuvel. "There's the rational economic answer, but there's also a moral consideration: Do we really want to be driving down prices for coal at a moment where we should be trying to phase it out?"
How much an additional 150 million tons of coal per year would shift China's demand is difficult to determine. The country currently burns around 4.8 billion tons of coal per year, 96 percent of which is supplied domestically.
The picture is further complicated because policy, not demand, is the primary driver in setting coal's price in China, said Richard Morse, a partner at the energy consulting firm Supercritical Capital.
"Let's say you grant the argument that 150 million tons can have an influence on a 4-billion-ton market. Then you have to assert that Chinese energy planning is highly sensitive to coal prices," he said. "If you look at Chinese energy targets, or how the power sector is run, you see that it's actually fairly insensitive to power prices."