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EPA Protects West Coast Ports Besieged by Coal

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 24, 2012 4:05:45 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

In a long-awaited move, the EPA has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to review plans for West Coast coal ports. Finally, alarmed environmentalists and frightened local residents are getting help from the Federal government.

CoalIn December, 2010, I first heard about a proposed coal port in Longview, Oregon and was so outraged that I wrote an article for CSRHub.com. It was so shocking, here, in the Pacific Northwest, a place that prides itself on clean energy leadership. Where just months later, amidst great celebration, Washington state announced it will close its last remaining coal plant.

The environmental arguments against the Longview coal terminal seem indisputable: the coal that would have been shipped from Wyoming and Montana was the lowest grade, a grade outlawed in the US because it is so toxic. The trains carrying the coal would go through the Columbia River Gorge and other environmentally sensitive areas, spreading adjacent land and communities with coal dust.

And when the coal finally got to China, the resulting clouds of black soot could have resulted in pollution so thick as to reduce visibility in West Coast communities, a “myth” that I witnessed several years ago in San Francisco.

That Longview port proposal was withdrawn in the face of consumer opposition and a state review. But as I just found out, a new plan was submitted in late 2011 that “dwarfs the size of the original.” The $600 million project would create a port that exports a staggering 44 million tons of coal per year, making it twice as big as the largest coal port on the West Coast, which is located in metro Vancouver.

The strange thing is that even moderate voices in the coal industry question the viability of new coal ports. David Gambrel, coal consultant with many years working in coal companies, cautioned developers in Coal Age to take a lesson from the past. In the 1980s, the Port of Los Angeles responded to the same frenzied level of Asian demand for coal, then from Japan and India. The port hosted a $150-$200 million consortium to build LATX for coal exports and in the early 90s opened a world-class facility. It exceeded environmental requirements. Even tough union problems were overcome.

But several years later, the demand from Asian markets failed to meet LATX’s minimum annual guarantee requirements and the project was shuttered.

The Port of Portland went through a similar saga, investing $25 million in its own export terminal only to find Asian markets to be unstable and unreliable.

And yet, here we are again. This time, coal prices are sky high and many more determined coal port developers are jumping in, including SAA Marine in Cherry Point Washington; the Longview facility which is co-owned by Ambre Energy of Australia and the US Arch Coal; Rail America’s coal terminal at Grays Harbor Washington; and three smaller ports in Oregon, including the Port of Morrow’s proposed development soon to be under review by the Corps of Army Engineers.

Even if Asian demand for coal does stay strong, there are many other uncertainties that make investments risky, including increased competition from Alaska and South America when the Panama Canal widening is complete in 2014, the arrival of larger New Panamax vessels which cut shipping costs but require deeper harbors, and the ability of railways to handle heavy loads and trains longer than 100 cars.

But the most frightening risk of all to the coal port developers is the environmentalists. As David Gambrel writes in Coal Age:

“Finding a site that meets all the physical requirements will be but a small part of the job. Global warming, climate change, and a host of other scare phrases will be used by people who now genuinely believe the Chinese will burn high sulfur coal and send their unclean stack emissions back to us. In many cases their fear is so great they will do everything in their power to stop any new development.”

How right Gambrel turns out to be. It’s those crazy residents and even crazier environmentalists devoted to stopping the coal port developments who pushed the EPA to pull in the Corps of Engineers. It’s amazing what a determined group of people can do, even in the face of the combined forces of coal, railway, and shipping industries. I sure hope they succeed.

Photo published under Creative Commons license. Courtesy of Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.

CSRHub has a Special Issue of Coal Involvement. The 51 companies on this list are involved in the coal industry either via coal mining, production of coal mining-related equipment, coal-based power production, or engineering services. Sources used: Coal Mining Engineer's ListVan Eck Global CoalPower Shares Global CoalSource Watch CarbonU.S. Energy Information Administration Coal ProducersYahoo! Coal.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.


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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Army Corps of Engineers, coal ports, coal production, EPA, Uncategorized, Carol Pierson Holding, Pacific Northwest

Solar Energy: No Pot of Gold if it Rains All the Time

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 27, 2011 1:37:01 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

by Carol Pierson Holding


Here’s a good one: where would you put the largest solar installation in the country? How about…the Cascade Mountains in Washington State!! Ha ha, get it? Near Seattle, as in always-rains-in-Seattle? Fewest sunny days? Way way up north?

If you still don’t get it, check out the solar maps below. Who in their right mind would locate the
country’s – if not the world’s - largest solar energy reserve in the Pacific Northwest? The state doesn’t even have environmental impact guidelines for solar projects, like it does for wind.

World Solar Map (1)

Picture 8 The only reason you’d build solar here is if you could make a lot of money.

So yes, the largest solar project in the country, if not the world, is planned for Central Washington’s western Kittitas County. The Teanaway Solar Reserve (TSR) would cover 1.5 square miles in the foothills of the Cascades.  The 400,000 photovoltaic panels could generate enough megawatts to run 45,000 homes.

TSR put together a compelling case. Senator Maria Cantwell was a champion. The Kittitas County State Representative Bill Hinkle was thrilled.

“This project exemplifies what many of us have dreamed of.” Hinkle said. “It presents Kittitas County with an opportunity to bring in family-wage jobs, diversify our energy portfolio and get in on the front end of renewable solar energy. This is clearly a future trend and I feel blessed that, of all the places this project could have been located, it’s coming to us.”

True, the project would be located in Central Washington—not the Seattle side of the mountains. But as renewable energy expert, current Executive Director of the Cascadia Carbon Institute and Kittitas County resident Steve Verhey wrote in his blog, “We're much too far north for reasonable solar energy production. The site is much better for growing trees than growing solar panels.”

Oh yes, the trees . . . a photo in the Seattle Times shows the project’s Managing Director, Howard Trott, standing on the site . . . in front of a bunch of trees.

It turns out that TSR is going to cut down trees to make room for solar panels. Cutting down trees to build solar? Aren’t we planting trees to combat climate change? And what about the wildlife habitat?

Who are these guys?

Follow the money: The project is getting 1/3 of its capital costs, an amount currently estimated to be $100 million, from a Federal solar grant. TSR also gets a sales tax exemption for its construction materials. And credits from the state to induce local utilities to buy its solar, at a price that exceeds other options, including improving existing hydropower plants and buying energy from wind turbines. Talk about a money pot!

But TSR claims that it needs even more government aid and is relying on its partner, Seattle’s premier lobbying firm, Strategies 360, to push though another bill that would double credits for utilities.

It’s an exception even environmentalists are objecting to. And still, TSR might prevail.

TSR is maintaining a low profile, calling itself simply a “privately owned solar company.” So… who are these guys?

Trott, the so-called “financial whiz behind the vision,” is TSR’s frontman, pointing to his 22 years as investment manager for a prominent wireless pioneer.

I went to the TSR web site to find out more, like who on the team had experience in the solar or energy field. The menu options are “What,” “Why,” “Where,” “When" . . . and “Weather?” “Who” is conspicuously absent.

So I started digging. At first, it seemed TSR might be owned by a company called AFLC whose address was listed as Wilson, Wyoming. Wilson is a town known for housing workers for the nearby exclusive resorts of Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson is a second home to Dick Cheney and many other conservative tycoons and Wall Street types who like it because of the gorgeous mountains, fabulous skiing . . .and the fact that there’s no state income tax.

So of course Wilson, WY is not AFLC’s real headquarters. Those are in New York City, at the offices of John M. Rudey, a real estate and timber tycoon. Rudey’s company AFLC (stands for American Forestry Land Company) owns about 45,000 acres of commercial forestland in Central Washington. These forests are in danger of being infested by budworm, a deadly beetle that slays trees in three to five years by eating their new growth. Once a tree is infected, it cannot be processed, so harvesting must be selective to avoid infected trees. As a result timber supply dried up and all wood mills in central Washington closed, making future timber economically infeasible due to high shipping costs.

Even worse for Rudey, Spotted Owls were spotted on his property and endangered species protection was imposed. So AFLC a.k.a. Rudey lost his investment. Unless he can find another use for the land.

Even healthy timber is not as valuable as timberland. Many forestry companies are selling their land to developers, as happened with the now-struggling Suncadia resort on the southern border of AFLC’s land. So, in 2004, Rudey/AFLC came up with plans to build its own development: a 1000+ residential community.

Current residents of the area learned about the plans and objected; Trott and Strategies 360 denied that TSR and AFLC were related; documents and maps submitted by AFLC to county commissioners disappeared; a former Commissioner and a former county staffer now work for AFLC. The outrageous chicanery resulted in a police investigation, but the charges were dropped.

In the meantime, the solar opportunity popped up. Rudey’s land is near major energy transmission lines, a real asset if you’re planning an energy farm. It all came together when Rudey set up TSR and leased AFLC land from himself for the solar project, giving AFLC a new source of income. Rudey’s son Matthew, a former investment banker, founded a company in 2008 called Just Energy, which, predictably, “designs and manages solar electric systems.” Just Energy’s location? Same block in New York as Dad’s AFLC.

Is this late capitalism at it’s worst or a case of a few bad apples spoiling a dream project? I truly hope that Wall Street figures out how to make money off of solar without all the shenanigans. Unfortunately, for now, there is money to be made off the tax-payers for even the most hare-brained solar projects. Maybe those Federal subsidies running out at the end of the year is a good thing. Though it can be brutal, free market capitalism sometimes does work best.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

Inset images courtesy of Suneco Green Energy Ltd., Washington Department of Ecology and the Renewable Resource Data Center. 


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[fa icon="comment"] 6 Comments posted in John M. Rudey, Teanaway Solar Reserve, Uncategorized, solar, Carol Pierson Holding, Cascadia Carbon Institute, Pacific Northwest

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