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In Our View: The coal-train reaction


Coal trains are poor policy

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A long-view of coal-export facilities weaves together who is paying for what, the spectrum of environmental impacts, and forecasting where the country will be a generation from now.
But politics are rarely hitched to a long view of history.
For lawmakers, coal trains should be a crucible, a decision unadulterated by electoral or labor politics. Silence or "on the other hand" posturing doesn't cut it.
Simply put, is this something Washington would like to be known for 20 years from now? A 21st century economy driven by aerospace, agriculture, and coal-export terminals?
No, but as George Orwell wrote, "To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle."
The Powder River Basin, just east of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains, is America's coal Eden, with 40 billion tons of extractable reserves. Presupposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point passes federal muster, the basin's Decker and Black Thunder mines will be the launching point for 18 open-car coal trains running daily through the Pacific Northwest.
At capacity, Cherry Point will export 48 million metric tons of coal a year. It would mark a sea change in the export sphere. The U.S. currently exports around 100 million tons of coal annually, with less than 10 percent shipping from West Coast ports. In addition to Cherry Point, the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview would annually export 44 million metric tons.
Who pays for tunnels, grade changes and other train-related costs? Railroads never shell out more than 5 percent for mitigation.
Most of the Powder River Basin's Asia-bound coal is mined from publically owned lands. The government leases reserves at below-market prices, in what pencils out to a $29 billion subsidy. The bow wave of costs related to exporting, including infrastructure and economic impacts, will mostly be shouldered by taxpayers.
There are compelling reasons to avoid telescoping coal exports into questions of NIMBY-ism, transportation hassles, or 215 additional living-wage jobs. There is the business of coal dust, of climate change, of injecting more CO2 into the atmosphere. The debate over coal trains is as much about the future and environmental ethics as it is about politics.
In a sharply worded letter to the Council on Environmental Quality in March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber ask the feds to undertake a thorough review of the greenhouse gas and air-quality impacts of coal leasing before "the U.S. and its partners make irretrievable long-term investments in expanding this trade." Good.
The evidence in front of one's nose is overwhelming. Northwest coal-export facilities should be stopped.

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