Coal companies look to courts for help with West Coast ports
Coal production in the United States increased by 6 percent to 701 Mt (773 million st) in 2017, largely on a strong export market while domestic coal production declined in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In an effort to increase exports, U.S. coal producers are looking for legal and political assistance in the form of two recent lawsuits against governments in Washington state and California challenging local decisions to block port projects on environmental grounds. Reuters reported that the industry is also lobbying the Trump administration to override the local bans.
The proposed port projects are crucial to industry growth, said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association.
“It’s worth fighting these battles,” he said.
The coal industry has eyed the West Coast as a gateway to the global market for years, with plans for as many as seven terminals on the books a decade ago. But five of those projects were canceled amid volatile Asian demand and bitter opposition in left-leaning California, Washington and Oregon.
Coal producers are fighting for the remaining two proposed projects – in Oakland, CA and Longview, WA.
In Oakland, attorneys for coal export terminal developer Phil Tagami and leading Utah coal producer Bowie Resources kicked off hearings in federal court over their proposed project. They argued the city council had used flawed scientific data to justify its unanimous 2016 decision to ban coal exports from the city.
That study concluded that dust emissions from coal transport would threaten local health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says excessive exposure to coal dust can cause black lung and other respiratory problems.
The coal industry’s lawyers countered that the study examined the wrong kind of coal and ignored state-of-the-art anti-dust technologies.
In Washington, Lighthouse Resources, the developer of the proposed Millennium coal export terminal, filed another federal lawsuit against the governor and state regulator alleging that the state is obstructing the commerce of other states where the coal is mined and that only the federal government can regulate such interstate commerce.
Washington had denied a permit for the project last year citing worries about rail safety, air pollution and noise pollution.
The coal industry, meanwhile, is pushing the White House and Congress for policy solutions – potentially through an infrastructure spending package – to make it easier to open export terminals over local objections, said Quinn, of the National Mining Association.
But growth from such deals is constrained because the only West Coast coal export facility in North America - in British Columbia, Canada - is near full capacity.
Coal exports rose more than 60 percent in the first five months of 2017, driven by temporary supply disruptions from Australia and depressed prices for U.S. coal.
Shipments to Europe rose about a third, to 14.5 Mt (16 million st), compared to the same period in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Exports to Asia doubled, to 11 Mt (12.3 million st), over the same period.