OLYMPIA, Feb. 3.—Big players in business and labor finally can agree on something: The Department of Ecology has them spooked. The agency’s plan to write a wildly expansive environmental impact statement for a coal port near Bellingham is enough to make anyone scared, they say, and they are announcing formation of a coalition to press their point.
The issue isn’t coal, they say, but rather that the same tactic could be used to block any industrial project. “This is a competitive issue,” said Gary Chandler, vice president of governmental affairs for the Association of Washington Business. “The state’s economy and jobs depend on trade, and that is worth fighting for.”
Their newly formed ‘Keep Washington Competitive’ coalition signals a new approach to the state’s biggest environmental debate. Unlike the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, the lead organization that has been trying to build support for Northwest coal exports, the new coalition does not include the rail and Midwestern coal companies with a direct stake in the outcome. The new group has a different message. Forget about coal, it says – it’s the process that ought to make people nervous. For the first time, state regulators are asserting the right to decide what sort of business can be done in Washington. No matter how benign the port itself might be, no matter what might be done to allay local concerns, it is going to have trouble passing muster under the criteria state regulators have adopted. And you have to wonder if Ecology is going to stop with coal.
In its environmental review, Ecology won’t be stopping at the state line – it plans to “evaluate” everything from train shipping from Wyoming and Montana to the use of ocean-going vessels, and most importantly, the impact of coal-burning on the other side of the world. Yet regulators have no plans to consider the fact that China can get coal elsewhere and burn just as much as they might get from Washington terminals. That means that the EIS is almost certain to conclude the coal-port proposal poses a global environmental hazard. Given the green inclinations of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made climate change a top issue, and who has written the Obama administration urging a shutdown of coal exports, the review is likely to provide political cover for a decision to reject a permit. A similar “scoping” decision is expected shortly from the state on a second coal-port proposal at the Port of Longview.
“What you’ll see from this coalition is a common message,” said Dave Myers, executive secretary of the Washington Building and Construction Trades Council. “We are asking for a fair and timely review of these projects, and one that reviews things that are within our control, so that we can move forward.”
Wedge Between Labor and Greens
The politics here are a fascinating thing. Labor and environmental groups are firm allies on most things progressive at the statehouse, but on this issue unions have common cause with business. Both are concerned with jobs and the economy. And in a small way, the issue in Washington is a replay of the bigger issue that is playing out nationally over the Keystone XL pipeline. On that proposal, which would carry crude from Canadian gulf ports, the Department of State outraged environmental groups when it refused to do what Ecology is doing here. It issued an environmental impact statement Friday that refused to weigh in on the issue of fossil-fuel burning and the impact on the global environment — essentially declaring that a matter of environmental philosophy was an improper matter for an environmental impact statement to consider. If the pipeline is not built, it said oil would still be shipped anyway, it said, via train or other means. That leaves the Obama Administration with a tough choice to make between environmentalists and labor.
In this state, Ecology’s approach could make the Inslee Administration’s choice a thousand times easier. Not that labor is buying it. At a news conference two weeks ago, Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington Labor Council, said the coal-port issue splits labor and the greens. “We are at odds with our normal friends on that issue; there is no doubt about that,” he said. The Labor Council has twice passed resolutions endorsing the Cherry Point coal port. The council isn’t part of the coalition, but there is heavy representation from individual unions — the electrical workers, the carpenters, the locomotive engineers, the operating engineers, the longshoremen, the sailors, the transportation workers, the machinists. Not to mention the state building trades, the Seattle building trades and the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council.
Big thing is that the labor and business say there is a bigger issue involved, not just coal. It is whether an ostensibly objective review process should be used to scuttle a project if a well-organized special-interest group objects. If it happens on this one, they say anyone with a project in mind for Washington ought to be very, very scared. When was the last time anyone proposed a major industrial project and no one objected? And if a port is to be judged on the commodity that is to be shipped, “where does it end?” asked Mike Elliott of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “We haul forest products, we haul lumber. There are some people who don’t want trees cut down. So where do we draw the line?”
Ecology Says Coal Different
The best statement of Ecology’s position came at a Senate hearing two weeks ago. Ecology director Maia Bellon acknowledged that a few times the agency has gone beyond the state line in assessing environmental impacts, but nothing like what it is doing here. What’s different is that coal is involved, she said. It deserves special treatment. “Washington state is essentially being asked to consider an energy pipeline of sorts, where the end use of the product could generate more greenhouse gas production than all other sources in the state of Washington combined.” Proposed shipments from the two proposed Washington ports could increase American coal exports 40 percent.
Bellon said that the agency will consider the fact that Midwestern coal might be shipped from other North American ports, but she said Ecology does not plan to consider the fact that China can obtain coal from other countries. This is because there is disagreement on the matter, she said. Some think shipments from Washington would increase the world market for coal; others say it won’t. Legislative critics say that is a mighty big question to duck.
At that Senate hearing, skeptical lawmakers noted that the same argument might be made against Washington exports of trucks and airplanes, all of which produce greenhouse gases as well. Take Boeing’s planned 777X plant, which will generate thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue. Its planes will emit greenhouse gases throughout the stratosphere, and yet the airplane plant has the enthusiastic endorsement of the Inslee Administration, not to mention the state Legislature and virtually every business interest in the state. The state isn’t planning a similar review. Under questioning, Bellon appeared to have trouble explaining why Boeing is different. But she said that if there is a review, regulators might decide that Boeing’s new lightweight carbon-fiber wings “will use less fuel than existing parts.”
A Spooky Precedent
It isn’t that anyone thinks Boeing ought to get the same treatment as the coal ports. But what is really going on is that state officials are picking and choosing which projects they like, and then using the environmental impact statement process to back up their decisions, Chandler said. “Ecology’s decision has harmed our reputation as a trade leader, both internationally and within the U.S.,” he said. “But most importantly the ramifications for our state are enormous. SEPA was designed to keep politics out of the environmental review process, and to give clear mitigation requirements for development projects.
“Now private investors are going to look at the new global SEPA review process and conclude that it is not apolitical, not practical, and it may not be worth the hassle of making trade investments here.” Canadian and Californian ports are booming, he said, and the state’s stand will simply send business away. It’s really a question of whether jobs are created here or elsewhere, he said.
Tom Davis of the Washington State Farm Bureau called Ecology’s new tack a “dangerous regulatory overreach” that could be turned against Washington agricultural exports. Just by deciding global concerns are worth considering, the Department of Ecology opens the door to trouble. If it concludes problems are insignificant, third-party groups could file lawsuits challenging its conclusions. “This could mean the targeting of specific crops, timber or other goods,” he said.
Patrick Connor of the National Federation of Independent Business wondered what might happen if, say, environmental regulators decide that the shipment of foreign automobiles is a problem. “What is to stop them from saying, gee, we don’t want to see heavy manufacturing degrading the environment in an Asian nation, with the product being shipped over here and being used?”
Other organizations participating in the new coalition are the Greenbriar Cos., the Northwest National Construction Alliance, the Pacific Northwest International Trade Association, and the Portland Business Alliance.
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