Executive Orders Could Give New Hope to Coal Terminal

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

A coal terminal in Longview, Washington may not be fully buried and gone, according to Carl Segestrom, an editorial fellow at High Country News.

In a piece carried by Mother Jones, Segerstrom speculates that Trump administration executive orders issued April 10 could lead to a rewrite of Section 401 rules under the Clean Water Act. States and tribes rely on existing rules to deny permits for facilities that release pollutants into federally protected waters such as the Columbia River.

“Trump’s directive declares that the current process ‘cause(s) confusion and uncertainty, leading to project delays, lost jobs, and reduced economic performance,’” Segerstrom asserts. The administration’s goal, he adds, is to tip the scales more in favor of extractive industries and away from states such as Washington and Oregon that have blocked fossil fuel export facilities.

“In the name of energy dominance, the federal government is looking to curtail state environmental reviews and promote fossil fuel exports. By doing so, it’s wading into an ongoing fight between coastal and Interior West states over permit denials for export facilities on the West Coast,” he writes. 

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

Segerstrom questions whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency will weaken rules enough to resurrect the proposed 44 million ton Millennium coal terminal in Longview. While he doesn’t say so directly, turnover in the White House after the 2020 election could scuttle the rule changes Trump seeks.

The Washington Department of Ecology denied Millennium a water quality permit In September 2017, citing Section 401 rules intended to protect federal waterways. US District Court Judge Robert Bryan rejected an appeal last month that argued the water quality permit denial interfered with the Constitution’s Commerce Clause provision.

Energy industry officials and elected officials from energy-producing inland states have pushed for rule changes that will give them an opportunity to site West Coast terminals to export crude oil, liquified natural gas, propane, methanol and coal to Pacific Rim markets. They argue these fossil fuel exports will in many cases substitute for fuels that produce higher level of greenhouse gas emissions. They also say the exports occur anyway through US ports on the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in longer, more expensive ocean trips to their Asian destinations. 

Fossil fuel export terminals have failed to gain critical Clean Water Act permits, but there are other objections that have played a role, most notably concern over more unit-train traffic and a heightened threat of spills and explosions.

Segerstrom cites Diane Dick, a Longview activist who has fought the coal terminal for nearly a decade. “From the beginning, she said the fight over the terminal felt bigger than just one project; she’s watched it become a poster child for a national debate over energy infrastructure. Now, as the executive branch tilts the scales against local environmental protection, Dick sees a larger question looming: When and based on what can a community protect itself?”