The board president of an environmental group, who is on the board of a second, will soon leave his partnership with a major law firm to go to work full time in support of coal exports, according to knowledgeable sources in the legal community.

Bill Chapman, a longtime partner at the law firm K&L Gates, will become president of Millennium Bulk Terminals, the firm that aims to ship 44 million tons of coal annually from a site on the Columbia River to markets in Asia. Chapman currently boasts at least two high-profile positions in the Northwest conservation community: he is president of the board of Mountains to Sound Greenway, a land trust dedicated to preserving natural areas along the I-90 corridor, and he sits on the board of directors of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, an organization that promotes public funding for parks and wildlife habitat.

Both are fine organizations that deserve support. Neither deserves to be tarred by association to the nasty business of large-scale coal export.

Although his biography has already been removed from K&L Gates’ website, reports he filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission show that Chapman has been doing legal work on behalf of Millennium Bulk Terminals’ coal export scheme for several years. (In 2013, Sightline outed K&L Gates work on behalf of big coal corporations.)

Like all large coal export terminals, Millennium would be nothing short of an environmental disaster. When burned, the coal Millennium proposes to export will emit roughly 88 million tons of carbon dioxide annually—nearly as much as the entire state emits from all varieties of fossil-fuel combustion in a year. It is enough to fuel eight or nine coal-fired power plants like the one at Centralia, which is currently the state’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. If constructed, Millennium’s proposed facility would be among the three largest coal export terminals in North America.

It’s worth recalling that coal is probably the most carbon-intense major energy source on Earth. It sickens (and sometimes kills) children and the elderly. The ash from burning it can wipe out whole populations of fish and other wildlife even while it poisons people nearby. It’s a major reason why our oceans are acidifying. Coal combustion is the main reason the earth’s atmosphere is spiraling toward instability. Plus, the coal industry has a history of deplorable relationships with workers and communities. Coal’s transgressions seem even worse when you consider that unlike other fossil fuels, the lower-grade coal used for generating electricity is almost totally replaceable with other energy sources.

In short, from the perspective of environmental conservation and climate protection, working to expand coal combustion is among the very worst things you can do with your career.

Yet despite his years of work on behalf of an environmentally destructive coal export proposal, Chapman is known to tout his green credentials to others. During his tenure at K&L Gates, Chapman was ranked among Seattle’s top environmental lawyers, and then-Governor Gary Locke appointed him to the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation. According to lawyers familiar with his work, he has repeatedly sought appointments to prominent environmental regulatory positions, including director at the Washington Department of Ecology.

Chapman’s decision to leave a cushy law firm partnership to spearhead a speculative coal export scheme doesn’t merely reflect badly on his environmental ethics; it may also turn out to be a terrible career move. Consider that K&L Gates equity partners averaged $900,000 a year in 2012, while international coal markets and prices are collapsing, regional opposition is growing, and many Wall Street analysts now put long odds on the Northwest terminals being built. Plus, Millennium has an especially checkered history that started when the company blatantly lied to the public about the scale of its plans.

  • Today, Millennium’s owners, Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, are dogged with questions about their financial viability, and whether they will ever be able to raise the $600 to $700 million needed to construct the facility. Sightline has written extensively about the primary owner, Ambre, an Australian start-up with mounting losses and dubious prospects. The minority owner, Arch Coal, is also in rough waters, having lost more than 80 percent of its market capitalization since 2011 (when the terminal was formally proposed). Many speculate that it will be the next major coal company to collapse into bankruptcy.

    Leaving aside the wisdom of Chapman’s career choices, executives of companies devoted to coal promotion simply do not belong in the leadership of environmental organizations, any more than tobacco executives belong on the board of the Lung Association.

    Both Mountains to Sound Greenway and Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition are worthy organizations, staffed by talented people, and doing important work to preserve the Northwest’s heritage. They have well-deserved reputations as leaders in conservation. And Chapman’s prime role in coal exports makes him unworthy of both institutions. First, because the coal export project he leads would accelerate the global climate disruption that threatens the forests, wildlife, and natural systems that both organizations are pledged to protect. And second, because Chapman has put himself in a position to use these groups’ hard work and good reputations to his own advantage, to give both himself and his new employer a patina of environmental credibility that neither in any way deserves.

     

    Thanks for Nick Abraham who provided valuable research assistance.