Hot off the presses: the three “co-lead” agencies in charge of reviewing the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point, Washington have published the scope of their review. The major takeaway is that it’s bad news for the coal industry.

The industry did win an empty victory with the Army Corps of Engineers, the sole federal agency at the table, which opted for a narrow scope of review. But in the end it doesn’t much matter. One of the other lead agencies, the Washington Department of Ecology, is going to require in-depth analysis of four elements that the coal industry had desperately hoped to avoid:

  • A detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.
  • An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington.
  • A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters.
  • An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

Of those, two stand to be particularly damaging for would-be coal exporters: rail impacts and greenhouse gas emissions. There’s not a lot of wiggle room with either of those elements.

First, burning the 48 million tons of coal proposed for export at the terminal annually would release roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, a staggering figure that amounts to as much carbon pollution as every activity in the state of Washington combined. In other words, it’s a clear environmental disaster that would overshadow every other effort the state has made to reduce climate-changing emissions.

  • Second, moving that much coal to a terminal will create congestion throughout the region. There’s simply no way around the math. In Seattle, for example, both Sightline and the traffic analysis firm Parametrix have confirmed that new coal export shipments would completely close major center city streets by an additional 1 to 3 hours every day, 365 days per year. (Sightline analysis here; Parametrix here.)

    What’s worse for the coal industry, is that the expansive scope of review will likely create further delay and uncertainty, potentially scaring off investors. Just yesterday, in fact, in a sad sack discussion of its second quarter earnings, Cloud Peak executives griped about the slow progress on coal export terminals:

    They did flag though unfortunately because of opponent’s abilities to protest everything then the things don’t go any faster, they tend to go slower… We’re thinking like 2018 for Gateway Pacific, I think is what we got at the moment, but it will be what it’ll be, but I think the next thing to wait for is the scope of the [E]IS and then we’ll need that work to be done which takes a couple of years.

    Now that public agencies will be tallying the manifest pollution, health, climate, and congestion impacts of Gateway Pacific coal terminal, there’s likely to be even more opposition as the potential impacts become more widely understood. Plus, given more analysis and a wider exploration of the proposal’s problems, opponents will likely find abundant opportunities to litigate, which would of course create even more delay and uncertainty.

    So for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal, the bottom line of today’s announcement is: long delays, high costs, more opportunities for public opposition, and a near-certainty of litigation. Coupled with the ongoing collapse in Pacific Rim coal prices, it’s not a fun time to be in the Northwest coal export business.