While the demand for coal in the United States has declined in recent years the export market for domestically produced coal has been seen as a lifeline for coal mines in Montana and Wyoming. However, California, Washington and Oregon have all opposed construction on coal ports, effectively halting the coal from getting to the Asian market.
The Associated Press reported on Oct. 16 that the Trump administration is considering using West Coast military installations or other federal properties as coal ports. The administration argues that it is a matter of national security.
The proposal was described to The Associated Press by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and two Republican lawmakers.
“I respect the state of Washington and Oregon and California,” Zinke said in an interview with AP. “But also, it’s in our interest for national security and our allies to make sure that they have access to affordable energy commodities.”
He only identified one prospect, the former Adak Naval Air Facility in Alaska’s Aleutian Island, a mostly abandoned Alaska military base. Zinke did not name government properties that could serve as potential coal ports or which states they are in.
The idea generated a quick backlash from some Democrats and environmentalists. It’s tantamount to an end-run around West Coast officials who have rejected private-sector efforts to build new coal ports in their states.
Boosting coal and gas exports would advance the administration’s agenda to establish U.S. “energy dominance” on the world stage. The potential use of government properties for exports underscores a willingness to intervene in markets to make that happen.
Zinke said the administration was interested in partnering with private entities in the use of federal facilities designated to help handle exports and cautioned that the idea is still in its early stages.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney for opponents of coal ports in Washington state, said using federal property for exports would get around some local land use restrictions, but not the need for state and federal clean water permits.
Asian exports have been held up as a lifeline for struggling U.S. coal miners as demand from the domestic power sector has plummeted and utilities switch to cheaper, cleaner fuels. The West Coast offers the most economical route because of its relative proximity to the largest coal-producing region in the U.S.: the Powder River Basin, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border.
Any export site needs access to deep waters to accommodate large ships and enough land to store fuel awaiting shipment. Few such locations can be found on the West Coast.
A $680 million project in Longview, WA, was denied a key permit last year by state regulators who said it would increase greenhouse gas emissions and cause “significant and unavoidable harm to the environment.”
Opponents argue the rejection of the Longview port violated the commerce clause in the Constitution that says only Congress has the power to regulate international and interstate trade.
Coal exports to Asia more than doubled in 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The rise continued in the first half of 2018 with almost 23 million tons of U.S. coal exported to Asian nations through June. South Korea, Japan and China were among the biggest recipients.