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Sierra Daily

Nov 06, 2013

Coal Train to Nowhere

IStock_000001004476XSmall (1)Big Coal lost big yesterday when Whatcom County, Washington, elected a slate of four county councilors strongly backed by conservationists (including guess who) opposed to the construction of a $600 million coal terminal at Cherry Point. (As Joel Connelly explains in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the coal issue was not explicitly debated by the candidates because of their quasi-judicial role in ruling on whether to permit the facility.) Both sides, however, were intensely focused on the central issue, with conservationists and the coal industry spending heavily to support their competing slates. Returns are not yet final (a new round of votes will be released at 4:30 PST), but last night's preliminary figures showed members of the presumed anti-coal slate leading by 9 to 10 percentage points. "The coal industry is in a death spiral," Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute said to Connelly. "They cannot even buy an election right now."

Should this election mean the end of Cherry Point as a terminal for shipping Powder River Basin coal to Asian power plants and smelters, the coal industry's export options would dramatically narrow. As I write in the current issue of Sierra: 

The coal industry hoped to increase its export capacity by building six new terminals in Oregon and Washington. Fierce opposition from Beyond Coal and other environmental groups, together with the dicey economics of the situation, meant a quick end to three. Left standing are proposed facilities at the Port of Morrow in Oregon and Cherry Point and Longview in Washington.

With the tide apparently turning against Cherry Point, that leaves only two ports left standing. That's what a death spiral looks like. 

Image by kurmis/iStock

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdatedStrategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber




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