Sunday, November 6, 2011

Coal Trains Running

As I've mentioned in prior posts, I live about 700 feet form the shore of Puget Sound as the Northwestern Crow flies.  Along this shoreline the tracks of the BNSF Railway snake their way from Ballard to Bellingham, never straying too far from the water along this stretch.  I like trains and I like watching them as I stroll along the beach; Canadian lumber heading south, Everett's trash heading to the big landfill in Klickitat County, and the Amtrak Cascades carrying its passengers between Vancouver and Eugene.  It is a small hazard to cross over the double-tracks to clamber down the rip-rap to the beach.  The passenger trains are fast and quiet compared to the freight trains.

In the planning works is a proposed bulk terminal to go in up at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham in Whatcom County.  The project is known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the developer is SSA Marine Services, one of the largest shipping terminal operators and stevedores in the world.  The main bulk product planned for shipment out of this facility is coal extracted from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.  The destination for this coal is China.  Why does China want our coal when they have an abundant supply?  The main answer to that question is well explained in this paper: China's Coal Import Behavior.  Basically, it's cheaper for China to buy coal from the Powder River Basin than it is to transport it across China's shaky infrastructure from mine to user.

So why do I care?  Well, on a very local level, there will be increased train traffic along "my" beach and through my bucolic home town of Edmonds.  It potentially means 18 more round-trip trains per day (Everett Herald 5-26-11) and these are long trains, up to a mile and a half.  Whether that ever actually comes to pass is really uncertain given the fickle nature of commodity prices, the instability of coal exports, and whether China finds it cheaper at some point to use their own coal.  China really controls the world coal market now.  Coal export instability and an ill-fated coal bulk terminal at the Port of Los Angeles is discussed here:  Sightline Daily -The Instability of Coal Exports II.

The economics and potential job creation of the Cherry Point project are relevant and must be considered.  However, on a world scale, the generation of carbon dioxide from coal burning and the potential health effect of coal dust generated from a bulk terminal operations and train transport must also be considered.  It will be an interesting couple of years or so as this project plays out.  The opposition has created a website with many good articles and resources here:  Coal Train Facts

On another local level in Whatcom County, Dan McShane discusses the politics (reluctantly) and other implications of the Cherry Point project in his excellent and prolific blog Reading the Washington Landscape.  Some of his Cherry Point related posts:

Kelli Linville: Clearly Opposed to Coal 11-4-11
Coal Politics in Bellingham: Yuk 10-21-11
Coal Stories - Including a Link Showing Local Coal Politics at Work 7-27-11
Coal Politics Comes to Washington and Wonky Process and Diplomacy (update) 6-28-11
Coal Terminal Preemptive Strike 2-28-11

I leave you with the Doobie Brothers:

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