Elections 2012: Vote for Coal? Northwest Tribes Raise New Concerns

Mark Trahant
10/1/12

A new Romney ad says “Obama wages war on coal while we lose jobs to China that is using more coal everyday. Now your job is in danger.”

Then a few months ago Romney also said “coal is good” in a way that sounded an awful lot like Gordon Gekko with his “greed is good” speech in the film, Wall Street.

That’s right: “You heard me, I like coal,” Romney said.

Why this love of coal? Romney believes that government regulation is slowing down coal production – and he’s hoping to pick up coal mining votes in Ohio and Virginia. (The mining industry is sponsoring a “Mine the Vote” campaign to turn out “prosperity” voters. “Help fuel America's comeback with American coal.”

All of that campaign is designed around the theme of energy independence. Vote for coal, then there is no need to import foreign energy.

But here’s the thing. One element of the coal campaign that is not getting much attention is a controversial plan by Peabody and other coal companies to ship millions of tons of coal by rail, road and river. The destination: China.

Peabody and other coal companies want to ship coal from Wyoming across the Pacific Northwest and on to China via ship.

What’s driving the export of coal? Coal prices are plummeting in the United States.Clark Williams-Derry writing for Sightline Daily said there is “shocking news” for the coal industry. “The nation’s electric utilities used 18 percent less coal in the first half of 2012 than they did in 2011, and 27 percent less than they did during the peak year, 2008. In short, big coal companies are in the middle of a free-fall, and nobody’s sure when they’ll hit bottom.” (A note of disclosure: I am on Sightline’s board of directors.)

He said in all of his years of researching, Williams-Derry has never seen a trend anything like this one. “Gasoline consumption might shift by a few percentage points per year at most. Coal consumption trends had been very much of that ilk: consumption would shift slowly, but with a long-term trend towards steady growth. So a drop of this magnitude is a proverbial “black swan” – an unforeseeable event with dramatic, world-changing consequences.”

The main reason for this unforeseeable event is the natural gas boom and fracking Natural gas prices are so low that power plants are converting from coal to natural gas. So the idea is to sell the more expensive coal to China. But that means shipping 150 millions of tons of coal across the Northwest. One of the ports the coal industry is proposing is on the Columbia River where Northwest tribes have treaty rights to fish for salmon.

“Along the Columbia River it’s cliff, highway, railroad, then river. Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape,” Paul Lumley, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said last week. “If we cannot escape, neither will the coal.”

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians adopted a resolution Friday that called for a full environmental review of all coal port proposals as a region instead of a port-by-port review.

“The idea of a half-dozen new coal export terminals in western Washington and Oregon – and the hundreds of trains and barges running from Montana and Wyoming every day to deliver that coal – would threaten our environment and quality of life like nothing we have seen before,” said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission. “Coal may be a cheap source of energy for other countries, but these export facilities and increased train traffic would come at a great cost to our health, natural resources and communities.”

Because coal is shipped in open containers it’s dust will be present throughout the region. Even more so if there is an accident of any kind. As Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby put it: “If a coal train or tanker were to spill on the route or in the river at Port Morrow in Oregon, the water ways will carry the pollution throughout the Northwest, and coal dust will be carried through the mountains in the air we all breath.”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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