Washington State will have perhaps the nation's greenest governor when Jay Inslee, an early visionary of America's clean energy economy, takes the helm in January.
Inslee, a congressman since 1999, was pushing for policies to spur investment in solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries long before it was mainstream.
Now, he will take office as one of the most controversial battles over the nation's energy and environmental future is raging in his backyard—whether to make the Pacific Northwest a hub for exporting coal to Asia.
Companies are angling to build two export facilities in Washington State from which 100 million tons of coal would be shipped to China, Japan and South Korea a year—about the same as what the United States exports now from East Coast and Gulf ports. They've applied for permits and are in the beginning stages of a complex state and federal approval process. In Oregon, three more proposals are underway.
What Inslee might do depends on who you ask.
Environmentalists and other critics say Inslee is their best chance to block the coal ports, even though he has yet to take a position on them. Inslee won't have veto authority, but he could push rigorous environmental reviews that could slow and complicate the permitting process or impose so many conditions that it would be difficult for developers to build the terminals.
Proponents say they aren't worried. Job creation was a tenet of Inslee's campaign in a state where the unemployment rate hovers above the national average. And the projects would create thousands of high-paying construction jobs. "Hopes are still high" for his backing, said Lauri Hennessey, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which comprises about 40 coal companies, transportation firms, labor unions and regional business councils.
The outcome of the five proposals has implications for the entire U.S. energy economy. Coal production would ramp up as coal-fired plants are being phased out in favor of cheaper natural gas and carbon-free renewable energy. If they're all built, U.S. coal exports would more than double from today's levels, according to developers' projections and federal data.
"We'd be the biggest coal-exporting region in the entire world. We've never exported this much coal," said Eric de Place, a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank in Seattle.
The pro-coal alliance says the five projects would create about 7,000 direct jobs and generate $25 million in tax revenue a year. Opponents say the increase in coal train traffic, air pollution and damage to waterways and other ecosystems would outstrip any economic benefits. They also say the terminals would undermine the nation's greenhouse gas reductions by enabling Asian countries to burn the fossil fuel instead.
Inslee was one of the first U.S. policymakers to publicize the idea that shifting to clean energy and away from fossil fuels would stimulate jobs.
"He was really the first person out there trying to push for comprehensive clean energy legislation from a jobs and economic perspective," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.
Hendricks and Inslee co-authored a book in 2007 called "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy" that told stories of how clean energy was transforming local economies across the country. The book helped catapult the concept of clean economic growth to the national stage and make green jobs a platform in the 2008 presidential race.
In it, Inslee called to "restrain the growth" of coal and pump money into clean-coal technologies. "Coal is powerful, efficient, cheap and abundant. But it's also killing us," the book says.
On the gubernatorial campaign trail, Inslee ran on a clean energy platform. He didn't taken a position on the coal plans in part because the job-creation potential of the projects made them a political hot potato. (His Republican opponent, state Attorney General Rob McKenna, also stayed neutral.) In a June debate with McKenna, Inslee said, "My view is we need to evaluate all of the jobs prospects, both plus or minus, before we make a decision."
Post-election, nothing has changed.
"At this point his involvement is more just making sure that the environmental review is completed," according to Jaime Smith, an Inslee spokesperson. She said Inslee wants to have "all of the facts and figures laid out" so he can make an informed judgment on where he stands.
The $665 million Gateway Pacific Terminal Project in Cherry Point, Wash., a cape south of Vancouver, is furthest along in the permitting process, though it could take up to four years to complete. An Australian coal company is proposing a $643 million facility in Longview, a small town in southwestern Washington.