With the prospect of Powder River coal being carried across the Northwestern states of Washington and Oregon on its way to power the Chinese economy, citizens and officials are beginning to register their disapproval of the idea. And why not? States and localities are on the hook for dealing with the greatly expanded capacity needed, not to mention the coal dust the cars leave behind. And then there's the idea of states that are leaders in green tech, being used as conduits to power economies still more reminiscient of 1912 than 2012.
Jefferson Smith, mayoral candidate for Portland, Oregon, spoke up quickly. Here's a brief video statement representing his position on Oregon: Coal Mule...
Context after the jump...
The Oregonian picked up on the statement by Smith, following up on earlier serial reporting about the coal export issue. It's a fairly simple concept: mining concerns in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming are dying to increase their output and sell it to countries in Asia. Oregon and Washington lie between the mines and the ocean. You can't drive coal in trucks; the carrier can't be enclosed due to combustion risk. Trains it is. And then you need coal terminals at the ocean ports--six, in fact, according to the mining industry.
The third point in Smith's video--exploring options with the City Attorney--reflects the uncertainty with which NW states may be forced to accept the coal transit. Thus much of what is possible now involves studying available options and making formal statements of opposition. The louder and the faster those statements are made, the better. It was good to see Smith out front in Portland on the issue.
And why oppose? Let the Western Organization of Resource Councils lay it out:
Among the findings:This will be a contentious issue to be sure, and will reach beyond Portland's borders. But what happens within them is ripe conversation for Portland politics, and Jefferson Smith has made his mark.
* Existing rail traffic, including export grain traffic and import and export container traffic, will likely experience a deterioration of rail service and higher freight rates and equipment costs, with railroads likely favoring the more profitable coal business. Increased delays could bump import-export container traffic away from Northwest ports to California and Canada.
* Total required rail improvements in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho could exceed $5 billion. The railroads, principally BNSF Railway, which has the shortest routes, would pick up costs for many line upgrades. But state and local governments "would likely bear the brunt" of local improvements to compensate for train traffic, spending "hundreds of millions" on projects such as rail bypasses and adding overpasses to separate trains from roads.
* The rail traffic would hit existing chokepoints. All trains would move through Billings and "the funnel" from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Spokane. The Columbia River Gorge and the Interstate 5 corridor from Portland to Seattle would also face crowding challenges, though BNSF has two other east-west lines in Washington that it could use to lessen the impact.
* States and communities have little leverage on federally regulated railroads. But agricultural shippers, states and others with concerns should lobby Congress to require thorough review of potential rail impacts by the federal Surface Transportation Board. That review could include requiring railroads to spend money on improvements.