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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

Coal Train Opposition in Seattle: Killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg?

Posted in Climate Change, Emerging Policy, Project Permitting, Sustainability

We’re a week away from a public meeting for the scoping process of the Gateway Pacific Terminal EIS, one of the proposed coal export terminals undergoing NEPA/SEPA review right now in Washington. As I’ve described earlier, these proposals may be the perfect storm of environmental issues: greenhouse gas emissions, transboundary pollution, vessel traffic in Puget Sound, and a host of ancillary related issues. But, at its core, the opposition to these projects is based on a philosophical belief that the United States should not supply coal to China.

As a result, those that are opposed to these projects are using whatever hooks they can to argue the projects shouldn’t move forward. For instance, Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn just released a study that suggests the coal train traffic through Seattle will cause road traffic delays in Seattle. Setting aside the larger debate of coal exports and energy policy issues, I think that Mayor McGinn and others attacking rail traffic associated with these projects may be doing the greater Puget Sound economy a disservice. Mayor McGinn is setting up a dangerous precedent for the future, because so much of Washington’s and Seattle’s economy depends on exports from Washington’s ports–which largely arrive by rail.

For instance, Washington’s agricultural production is about $46 billion annually, employs 160,000 people and comprises 13% of Washington’s total economic output.  Roughly $15 billion in agricultural commodities and products are exported through Washington’s ports each year. Many outsiders view Seattle as a “new economy,” being the home of Amazon.com, Starbucks, and the neighbor of Microsoft. But, the reality is that Seattle’s  “old” economy–specifically its maritime infrastructure and the ports along Puget Sound–are equally as important as the newer tech-based economy. Those agricultural exports–like coal–arrive or pass through Seattle via rail, and the ports are completely dependent on rail traffic as a source of those exports.

Growing agricultural exports grows Seattle’s (and Washington’s) economy. That also means Seattle will see more rail traffic. So, I think Mr. McGinn needs to be very careful about his assault on train traffic as a way to oppose these coal terminals. If he’s not careful, the collateral damage may include Washington’s agricultural and maritime industries, and he could be killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg in the process of opposing these coal terminals.