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Will Washington's Super Green Governor Take Up the Fight Against Coal Exports?

Enviros say Gov. Jay Inslee, a pioneer of the U.S. clean economy, gives them a shot at blocking NW coal terminals. Is it wishful thinking?

Nov 26, 2012
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Washington State Gov.-elect Jay Inslee

Both coal export projects require environmental permits from various government agencies. At the state level, the departments of ecology and natural resources are responsible for giving water and air quality permits. At the federal level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to issue permits to "dredge or fill materials" into waterways and wetlands and must approve any construction in or over "navigable waters." County officials must also ensure that projects comply with a 40-year-old state law to prevent rampant development of the state's shorelines.

To get each permit, project developers must prove they can reduce or manage environmental and public health impacts of the terminals. If they can't, the permits could be denied or saddled with so many conditions that developers could decide to abandon the projects, according to Ross Macfarlane, a senior adviser at Climate Solutions, a nonprofit based in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington State and Oregon have two of the cleanest energy mixes in the nation, with one coal plant each, both of which are scheduled for retirement in the next decade.

What Could Gov. Inslee Do?

While the governor's office isn't directly involved in permitting—and the projects could move forward no matter what position Inslee takes—he is charged with appointing the director of the state Department of Ecology, who will play a crucial role. Inslee could select a new leader or reappoint Ted Sturdevant, the department's current director, who has called for a rigorous evaluation of the terminals.

Smith said Inslee is just now starting to look at who he will ask to join his administration, which starts on Jan. 14.

Peter Goldmark, the head of the Department of Natural Resources, who was re-elected this month, will also have an important role in the permitting process. He was strongly endorsed by environmental advocates, Macfarlane said.

According to de Place of Sightline, the most effective move Inslee could make from opponents' perspective is to pressure federal officials to undertake an assessment that looks at the cumulative effects of building all five terminals on the region, the country and the world.

So far, the main federal agency involved hasn't given any indication that it will do so—though it hasn't ruled it out either.

In April, during a public comment period on a proposed export terminal in Oregon, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers consider the full range of impacts, from increasing coal mining in Montana and Wyoming to increasing coal-fired generation in Asia. The Army Corps has final word on federal permits.

At that same time, Oregon's Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber also urged federal officials to assess the regional, national and global impacts of producing, exporting and burning more coal. 

Ultimately, the Army Corps opted to lead a limited environmental impact assessment at the Oregon facility. It could later expand the scope of the review.

When asked if Inslee might follow the EPA and Kitzhaber in pressuring federal officials, Smith said "I don't think we've made a decision to do that at this point."

Will Calif. Gov. Brown Weigh In?

Even if Inslee steps up pressure, de Place expressed concern that the two governors alone might not hold enough political clout to sway Washington to conduct strict reviews.

It doesn't help opponents that a coalition of Congressional lawmakers is pushing to hasten review of projects.

Last month, 53 members of Congress—including Washington State's Republican Rep. Doc Hastings—sent a letter to the U.S. Army and the Department of the Interior, which grants leases to mine coal, asking the agencies to "expedite their consideration of permits for coal export facilities."

California's governor, on the other hand, could make a difference.

Although Gov. Jerry Brown isn't involved in decisions on the five proposed coal facilities, he could lend his influence to the debate as governor of the most economically powerful state in the country and the national leader on clean energy and climate policy.

"California brings to bear an entirely different level of resources and clout," de Place said. "It would have an important impact."

Stanley Young, a spokesperson for the governor and the California Air Resources Board, the state's air regulator, said Brown hasn't decided whether to take a position on the terminals.

Young said California is "fighting" to move both the state and the region away from coal. He pointed to the state's recently launched cap-and-trade program, which makes it more expensive for utilities to burn coal. The state also has a five-year-old law banning power companies from importing coal-fired electricity by setting steep carbon emissions standards.

This summer, the California State Assembly and State Senate adopted a joint resolution urging President Barack Obama and Congress to pass laws restricting exports of coal to any country that doesn't regulate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution at levels required by the United States.

The resolution also calls on Brown to tell the governors of Washington and Oregon about the "significant health risks" that coal terminals and the increase in coal rail traffic could pose to the people of the Pacific Northwest.

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