As the region considers the viability and wisdom of building new coal export facilities, there have been quite a few claims—not all of them entirely accurate—about jobs. So in the hopes of setting the record straight, here’s what the facts are.

  • Longview (Millenium Bulk Logistics, Ambre)—Estimates for the original version of the project were that operations would employ 70 people to move about 5 million tons of coal. The site currently employs 50 people, however, and news reports seem to indicate that the coal terminal would eliminate most of the activity related to those 50 jobs. So the gross number of coal jobs is 70, but the net is only 20.
  • Bellingham / Cherry Point (Pacific Gateway, Peabody)—Some of the publicity materials have claimed 430 jobs, but that doesn’t jibe with what’s in the actual project documents, which are absent the project’s website. In fact, the project developers say that a 25 million ton facility, which is planned to be operational in 2015, would employ 89 workers, and not until 2026, when the full 54 million ton facility is completed, would it employ 213 people.
  • Roberts Bank (Westshore Terminal) — The British Columbia coal export facility just south of Vancouver provides 260 jobs at a facility that ships around 20 million tons of coal per year.

Is that a lot or a little? Here’s some context:

coal jobs

In other words, if these terminals become operational:

  • Coal exports at Longview would directly increase employment in Cowlitz County by less than one half of one tenth of one percent.
  • Coal exports at Cherry Point would directly increase employment in Whatcom County by less than one tenth of one percent. 

Now, none of the above counts short-term construction jobs to build the facilities, and these could be significant. Let’s take a look at those now.

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  • The site at Longview would reportedly employ 120 workers in direct construction jobs as the site is being built. That would, theoretically, reduce the unemployment by 0.27 percentage points if all of the workers came from the local labor force. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it might feel significant for the hard hit construction trades in a county with an unemployment rate that has recently averaged above 12 percent.

    The Gateway Pacific developers, the folks with an eye on Bellingham, are claiming that the build-out would directly create 1,700 construction jobs. That’s enough, theoretically, to reduce the unemployment rate in Whatcom County by nearly 1.6 percentage points—though I think there are some big caveats that should be applied here. First, 1,700 is an awful lot of jobs; enough to make me a mite skeptical. Second, there’s almost no way that many construction workers and technical jobs could materialize from the existing ranks  of the unemployed in Whatcom County, which reports fewer than 8,400 unemployed workers total. More likely, a very significant portion of the jobs would go to workers from the Seattle area—where project developer SSA Marine is located—and that could mean putting a much smaller share of Whatcom County’s unemployed back into the workforce.

    Each of these plans would occupy hundreds of acres of waterfront shipping with storage for raw coal. There are far more job-intensive uses for port lands. For instance, a marine construction company leasing just 3.5 acres of land and a new cold storage facility on 17 acres of land at the Port of Tacoma are each expected to generate 100 new jobs. A Port of Seattle economic impact study found that shipping 1,000 metric tons of grain—a bulk commodity like coal—generated just 0.09 jobs, compared to 0.57 jobs for containerized cargo and 4.2 jobs for “break bulk” cargo, such as big machines or goods shipped on pallets, which requires more handling.


    Notes: Labor force figures by county from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, here. Unemployment rate figures are 12 month “unadjusted” averages, also from the BLS, here.