Journal of the San Juan Islands


Some fears overstated, but not China's abuse of coal | Guest column

January 23, 2013 · 2:44 PM

Environmental fears to the list of concerns as roughly 400 islanders turned out at a environmental impact statement 'scoping' meeting for the Gateway Terminal Project, Nov. 4, in Friday Harbor. / Journal file photo

By Robert deGarve

We have all suffered through pamphlets mailed to us and editorials, articles and letters in our local press concerning the proposed coal export facility at Cherry Point.

I feel as though I have been bombarded by statistics designed to terrify me and shake loose contributions, not to inform me. We are warned that the facility will export 48 million tons of coal annually.

In 2011 the Port of Vancouver Canada exported 36 million short tons of coal (principally metallurgical coal). In addition, since 2009 the Port of Seattle has become one of the United State’s six largest exporters of coal.

Large shipments of coal transiting our seas are an existing fact, have been so for years, and do not warrant hysteria. We are also warned that that the facility will fill 487 bulk carriers each year, creating hazards to navigation and sea life.

To place that number in perspective, a total of 4,511 vessels entered the ports of Vancouver and Seattle in 2012. Roughly half of these ships were bulk carriers. These numbers exclude oil tanker arrivals at the Anacortes and Cherry Point refineries, US naval movements, ferry sailings in the hundreds of thousands, vessels visiting other ports and, in the case of the Port of Vancouver, intra-Canada sailings.

A one year swing in the number of container ships and bulk carriers calling on the Port of Seattle can exceed 487 ships. And our shipping channels are not confined and hazardous for navigation as, for example, the Chesapeake Bay or the Mississippi. In sum, the number of ships projected to use the facility simply does not warrant hysteria.

We are also expected to accept without analysis that 48 million tons of coal is a realistic projection. Is it?

Let’s first ignore that the fact that facilities seldom, if ever, reach theoretical maximum capacity. Also let’s ignore the fact that the facility is designed to handle grains, phosphates and other bulk material in addition to coal.

Forty-eight million tons exceeds by 125 percent the total steam-coal exports from all U.S. ports in 2011. Since then, coal exports have been surging as rising production of cheap natural gas replaces coal for electrical power generation and Europe, counter-intuitively, shifts to coal-generated electricity.

Substantial coal exports to Asia depend on at least two important assumptions:

No. 1: The first is that the federal government denies export permits for liquefied natural gas, thus keeping domestic natural gas prices depressed. Given the Washington’s policy indifference to our surpluses of natural gas and the lowest prices in the industrial world, the administration will probably grant LNG export permits. The resulting higher prices for domestic natural gas may reduce substantially coal surpluses available for export.

No. 2: The second assumption is that China’s growth in coal consumption will continue unabated. Japan went through the same “growth-at-any-price” in the 1950’s and 60’s until rice farmers and then other voices forced a tectonic shift in policies in the 1970s. If China, as may be likely, goes through the same transition, the Pacific export market for U.S. coal may not be there.

The core problem with the Cherry Point facility is not 457 bulk carriers. It is not 48 million tons of coal transiting our waters. It is not the innumerable “not-in-my-backyard” problems cited, such as coal dust, noise and congestion from trains re-routed to the Pacific Northwest from runs to power plants in the East.

The Friends (Friends of the San Juans), their echoes on the County Council and others disingenuously frame the debate in these self-absorbed terms and in doing so patronize us.

The single issue is that the United States should not export steam coal. It is the filthiest and most polluting of all fossil fuel sources, the worst CO₂ generator, and rains sulfuric acid and mercury on all of us. Even if a market exists in China for our coal, and even if 48 million tons of coal is only a minuscule 1 percent of China’s consumption, we should not enable their use of coal.

Rising natural gas supplies have happily resulted in a reduction in our CO₂ and other emissions. Let’s not export those emissions elsewhere on our planet.

— Editor's note: A resident of San Juan Island for more than 15 years, Robert deGarve served in the U.S. Navy as a submarine engineer officer, and later has a 30-year business career in financial groups of a major oil company, a large hard-rock mining company, a major pharmaceutical company and a medical electronics company. He is a former member of the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee.


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