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When it comes to coal, all caution should be exercised

by: Courtesy photo BY BARGE — Ambre Energy and its subsidiary Pacific Transloading hope to utilize dock space at the Port Westward energy park near Clatskanie to barge coal from the Powder River region to the Asia-Pacific market as seen in the illustration above. Ambre officials say any operations at the Port of St. Helens-owned property would be enclosed, citing environmentalist concerns over coal dust.

Mention of the word 'coal' invariably conjures images of Industrial Revolution-style filth and leads to talk of energy's dirty past and not the clean, green promise of an energy future beyond fossil fuels.

As such, it was with considerable skepticism news the Port of St. Helens was considering proposals to allow coal loading plants at Port Westward was received at the Spotlight.

Though any proposal for new industry to provide a much-needed adrenaline shot to the the deflated tax base, and the addition of new jobs at a time when unemployment has been stubbornly high over the past few years, is hard to resist and should be faithfully explored, the bottom line is that we're talking about an industry with one of the worst track records in the realms of environmental and human health. In fact, it is generally regarded as the dirtiest fuel on earth.

Coal is old energy. It is invasively dusty and dirty. It is not the energy source of the future, and all responsible citizens of this small blue planet should be encouraging of scientific advances that move us away from fossil fuel technology.

We're not there yet, and it could be decades before we are. For the time being and immediate future, fossil fuels, most notably coal as some energy experts predict, are and will be the staple energy source domestically and globally.

But to surrender to the easy allure of coal cash and the status quo way of doing things is a mistake. Developing countries such as China and India have embraced coal to fuel both countries' juggernaut growth plans, and both have recklessly compromised air, water, land and human health in the process. Their disregard for human habitat conservation should be regarded as a global crime, and such growth will come at an irreversible cost before their development plans are realized.

Run-of-the-mill coal technology flies in the face of ingenuity and enterprise, which at their best can create a better world for us, our children and our grandchildren. But ingenuity and enterprise, at their worst, are manipulative, maliciously opportunistic and rapacious.

In review of the proposals, the two companies - Pacific Transloading LLC, a subsidiary of Australian-based Ambre Energy with U.S. offices in Utah, and Kinder Morgan, which already has significant natural gas arrangements domestically and in China - are making great, sweeping pledges to the county. Ambre Energy respectfully shrugged off the need to take advantage of the Port Westward enterprise zone and the tax incentives it presents. That company also promised a voluntary cash donation to Columbia County schools for $350,000, creation of 25 family-wage jobs in Columbia County and offered a pre-assessed tax boost to the county in the neighborhood of $750,000 annually based on a $150 million capital expenditure. Kinder Morgan's pledge for job creation is even greater at 80 full-time jobs, and its capital investment larger at between $150 million and $200 million, though the sweet talk regarding voluntary school contributions is absent.

And make no mistake: This is sweet talk. At a time when we are near our most desperate in terms of industrial valuation and jobs, in walks promises of glory and gold.

We should tread very, very carefully, and not let the industry set the development pace.

Beyond introducing coal into Columbia County and all that local presence entails, we should be equally concerned about its final destination. There is little secret the ultimate goal would be to ship the coal to Asian markets. Japan, now scared to death of nuclear, and South Korea were mentioned. And though the companies, from a public relations perspective, don't want to invoke the big 'C' word - China - there is little doubt China, and its voracious appetite for coal, is in the mix. In fact, Ambre Energy executives are prolific in news and investment articles online discussing potentialities for China, and Kinder Morgan is equally at play in the Chinese market.

China's record on pollution control and human rights is horrendous. As a nation it has allowed toxins to contaminate its water sources, saturate the earth and infiltrate the air. Air, it should be mentioned, that spews back toward the West Coast of the United States.

In its 2006 series on coal, the New York Times published an article regarding a plume of pollutants that had been tracked from a production plant in China. The newspaper and its reporters, Keith Bradsher and David Barboza, aptly captured the problem with coal exports to China:

'In early April, a dense cloud of pollutants over Northern China sailed to nearby Seoul, sweeping along dust and desert sand before wafting across the Pacific. An American satellite spotted the cloud as it crossed the West Coast.

'Researchers in California, Oregon and Washington noticed specks of sulfur compounds, carbon and other byproducts of coal combustion coating the silvery surfaces of their mountaintop detectors. These microscopic particles can work their way deep into the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer.

'Filters near Lake Tahoe in the mountains of eastern California 'are the darkest that we've seen' outside smoggy urban areas, said Steven S. Cliff, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Davis.

'Unless China finds a way to clean up its coal plants and the thousands of factories that burn coal, pollution will soar both at home and abroad. The increase in global-warming gases from China's coal use will probably exceed that for all industrialized countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks.

'The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an immediate threat to the health of China's citizens, contributing to about 400,000 premature deaths a year. It also causes acid rain that poisons lakes, rivers, forests and crops.'

Lake Tahoe, as filthy as Los Angeles, and all thanks to poorly regulated coal burning occurring 5,000 miles to the east. And the Internet is rife with scientific studies and articles indicating the pollution phenomenon is growing, not abating.

As several proponents of the plan have pointed out, the coal proposed for export from Port Westward would originate from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Such coal, as we're learning, is lower in sulfur content and burns considerably cleaner than the coal currently used to fuel Asia's boom, though it burns at a lower Btu than coal mined from Eastern U.S. sources. Domestically, the hue and cry for cleaner air and legislation regulating air emissions has increased the market power for Powder River Basin coal. And there are indicators that overseas coal sources, including Indonesia, are taking steps to reduce exportation of low-quality coal as well. These are positive steps foward, but we're still talking about coal.

Undoubtedly Powder River Basin coal is higher quality coal than the dominant stock feeding much of the international market today. One argument, and it has merit, is that we are incentivized to provide our new economic masters in China with our higher quality coal so as to reduce overall carbon emissions.

The Port of St. Helens Commission is not the final word on whether the coal staging terminals will be built - they would still have to pass muster with local, state and federal land-use regulators. And as the agency's executive director, Patrick Trapp, has publicly said, approval of the projects at the Port level allows them to be explored, to see if they could be a good fit for Columbia County.

It should be explored, deeply, with the eye of a miser and a nose fully attuned to foul play. For once the door is open to King Coal, it's not likely to shut anytime soon. And right now the consequences are not fully known or understood.