Kitzhaber wants study of coal-export impacts

Kitzhaber wants study of coal-export impacts
FILE -Gov. John Kitzhaber (AP File Photo/Rick Bowmer)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Oregon's governor called on federal agencies Wednesday to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impacts of coal-export projects in the Northwest, saying the United States risks locking Asian countries into dependency on fossil fuels if it expands access to vast American coal reserves.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, sent a letter asking federal officials to study the environmental impacts of mining coal in Montana and Wyoming, shipping it to the West Coast and burning it in Asia.

Projects are proposed for at least six ports in Oregon and Washington to ship coal to power-hungry markets in Asia. Taken together, they could mean at least 100 million additional tons of coal shipped per year to Asia.

The governor said he's concerned about environmental effects locally — from coal dust and additional train traffic between mines and ports — and globally, from burning more coal in developing countries. Expanding Asian access to American coal could slow progress toward developing cleaner energy sources, the governor wrote.

"The impacts of United States coal exports on climate change are an issue of national concern that merits a hard look by a federal agency," Kitzhaber wrote to the directors of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the secretaries of the Army and the Department of the Interior.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency last week asked the Corps of Engineers to thoroughly review the potential impacts of coal exports from one project proposed at the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Ore. The Corps said it would consider the EPA's concerns.

Kitzhaber contends that existing environmental studies for coal-mining leases in Wyoming's Powder River Basin were based on an expectation that coal would be shipped East and used for electricity production in the United States.

The Bureau of Land Management in December denied a request by Oregon and Washington for a supplemental environmental impact statement evaluating westward shipments of coal and exports to Asia. The agency said export proposals were too speculative, but Kitzhaber argues in his letter that there is now more clarity.

An environmental assessment on the scale that one Kitzhaber requests would take years and would significantly delay work, said Brian Gard, a spokesman for the Morrow Pacific Project, which aims to ship coal by train to the Port of Morrow, where it would be loaded on barges and taken to a port in St. Helens, Ore., for transfer to a seagoing ship.

The Army Corps of Engineers is already doing an enhanced environmental impact assessment for the project, covering the time the train arrives at Morrow until the ship enters the Pacific at the Columbia River Bar, Gard said.

"From our perspective, and meaning absolutely no disrespect to the governor, it would be deeply frustrating to have the regulatory process suddenly change in some dramatic fashion," Gard said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.