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31 March, 2013

Is This What We Want?

A dispute rolled into the Northwest a few years ago, and the rumblings grow louder. On one side, mining and railroad interests with some union support, advocating for ports where coal from the Powder River basin can be put onto boats headed to China. On the other, environmentalists and local residents who don't want the pollution and headaches that would come from a major coal port. 

Several locations from Oregon to British Columbia are vying to get the port. There will be jobs as it is constructed, and a smaller number of jobs to operate it once it is built. Industry never tires of pointing to these jobs, and unions have been hit hard enough that they chime in with support, but there is little evidence that ports--which are increasingly mechanized--will make much of a dent in long term unemployment. Advocates of any one location prey on citizens' fear that the jobs will go elsewhere if locals do not welcome this development; the NIMBY urge lives in tension with "Well, if it's gonna happen somewhere anyway..."

The question is whether the trade-off is worth it. Jobs and perhaps some revenue (if the local governments don't dangle too much tax relief as a lure) balanced against traffic delays, noise, and the local environmental effects of the development and operation. Coal dust and blaring horns will fill the local air, locals will spend more time idling as mile-long trains pass through, trees will be cleared and archaeological sites obliterated. A leading candidate, Cherry Point in Washington, has long been a herring fishery important to the Lummi and other tribes, including the salmon people who need forage fish; nobody expects the underwater residents to fare well with a massive increase in development, dust, and boat traffic. 

I've never lived by a coal port, and Olympia is too small to be in the race. But I do drive Route 14 up the Columbia from time to time, I have tried to sleep in Stevenson as the plains rumble through, horns blasting, and it's hard to imagine how a massive increase in traffic would be tolerable. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where trainloads of Appalachian coal would pass by on their way to the port of Norfolk (location of these photos). The last time I saw that port was a decade ago, mountains of coal feet away from Chesapeake Bay, grime everywhere. 

And not just the immediate everywhere, because this issue reaches beyond the effects in Bellingham. All along the coal train tracks, localities will experience the dust, noise, and traffic. At the source, miles of earth ripped apart never to be the same. Carbon now in the ground, stable, not contributing to global warming, will be torn out and put on the market. Once in China, it will be burnt without even the weakened environmental controls that exist here. The smoke and pollution will move downwind to visit the US again, and the global atmosphere will get tauntingly dirtier, warmer. These consequences will visit the people who welcomed the port, yes, but they will hurt everyone else as well. If and when the Chinese plants burn all the US coal, they will fall back on their own reserves, and keep on burning.

If a coal port happens--and the relentlessness of North American capital suggests it will--the lucky winner will likely learn some hard lessons. Many of the construction jobs will go to outsiders, and operations won't generate the employment or revenue expected. At Cherry Point, we've already learned that the proponents' initial statements about the volume were a fraction of what they really plan, that there will be twice as much traffic and pollution. Friendly promises will be reneged. Coal, being a global commodity, may become more profitable (leading to increased shipping), or the bottom may drop out (causing jobs to disappear from time to time). Even if you support coal power, does it make sense to sell our reserves to China, whose import policy is partly to protect their own for the future?

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