U.S. Chamber stands against calls for stricter review of coal exports


Representing business interests, national agency says pending request could harm economy

by: COURTESY PHOTO/AMBRE ENERGY - The Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore., (above) is where Ambre Energy hopes to soon begin construction of a marine terminal to ship coal from the Powder River Basin to industrial land near Clatskanie.The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took a strong stance against environmentalists' pending request for a significantly stronger regulatory review of Ambre Energy's multi-million-dollar coal barging proposal, claiming such a far-reaching analysis is unnecessary and could harm the economy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began its mandated review of Ambre subsidiary Coyote Island Terminals' Morrow Pacific Project in March. Nearly 20,000 people have submitted comments to the Army Corps so far.

In a June 13 letter to the Army Corps, William L. Kovacs, director of the Chamber's Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs division, asked the federal agency to disregard a call from environmentalists for the Army Corps to begin a "Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement," a review that would not only analyze the individual project and its ramifications on the region, but the cumulative impacts of numerous businesses using West Coast ports to ship coal overseas.

Highlighting a 2010 Chamber study, Kovacs said "excessive" environmental reviews have halted 351 energy projects, either permanently or with serious delays. The study claims these setbacks cost the country 1.9 million jobs for every year the projects were held up.

"The Chamber has spent the past three years studying the paralyzing effect that excessive environmental reviews have had on major infrastructure and energy projects, including port dredging, road building, and construction of power plants," Kovacs wrote. "Thousands of projects are delayed or killed outright each year because of endless environmental reviews and the legal challenges that accompany them."

Port of St. Helens Commission President Robert Keyser agrees with this stance. In January, following nearly two years of behind-the-scenes dealings, the Port approved lease options for both Ambre and energy transporter Kinder Morgan to work toward using the Port's property near Clatskanie to export coal to the Asian market.

"The environmental assessment and permitting processes already in place are more than adequate to determine if a project will have unreasonable negative environmental effects," Keyser said. "Pretending that a programmatic review is anything other than a way to delay a project until it goes somewhere else does not pass the straight-face test."

But others, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Environmental Protection Agency, believe the standard review process doesn't give a close enough look at the impacts of Ambre's planned project as it relates to five other coal export proposals hoping to export millions of tons of coal.

"A cumulative impacts study is absolutely necessary because so many communities would be impacted by multiple coal export projects and these communities have not ever experienced this large quantity of coal rail or barge traffic," Sierra Club representative Laura Stevens wrote in an email. "These communities need at a minimum to have all the facts laid on the table about what the economic, health, safety, and environmental impacts would be."

Fifty-eight members of Congress, none representing Oregon, also weighed in June 21 when they jointly signed a letter to the Army Corps standing against expanding the scope of environmental reviews on coal export projects. The letter points out International Energy Agency data showing that in the last decade world coal consumption increased by nearly 60 percent.

Ambre officials attest its project will be environmentally responsible, regularly proclaiming the Australian company's promise to keep the fossil fuel covered during its journey from the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore., to Port Westward near Clatskanie where it will be shipped overseas. Before that step the material will be shipped by uncovered rail, using a coal dust mitigation compound, to Boardman from the Powder River Basin, perched on the edge of Wyoming and Montana.

Still, whether its covered or not, many environmentalists believe coal to be inherently dirty and an outdated fuel choice considering numerous cleaner energy options available.