Longview, Washington—When an Australian shipping company named Millennium Bulk Terminals announced plans last November to open a coal export terminal in this port city of 36,000, few predicted any trouble. Millennium quickly bought the site on which the terminal would be located, a property on the banks of the Columbia River that was once the home of an aluminum smelting plant. Cowlitz County, home of Longview, a blue-collar bastion 40 miles north of Portland, Oregon, approved the project after a review, seeing as a blessing the 75 promised fulltime jobs that the terminal would bring at a time when the city’s unemployment rate was near 12 percent. The terminal would be used to ship coal mined in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to China, whose appetite for coal is voracious—and growing. The United States, meanwhile, now mines more coal than it burns, making coal an excellent export opportunity, and a good tool with which to lower the United States’ yawning trade deficit with the Middle Kingdom.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to shared fortune. As soon as Cowlitz County’s approval of the terminal was announced, a vociferous backlash ensued among environmental groups in Washington State. The opposition was surprising, given that the environmental effects of transferring coal are minimal: The coal would arrive by rail from Montana and Wyoming, then be loaded onto ships and swiftly transported across the Pacific to China. The only effects visited on Longview might be some coal dust (a risk that an environmental review by Cowlitz County found to be minimal) and, perhaps, a bit of prosperity.

Instead, the four environmental groups who opposed the terminal, and launched an appeal to block Cowlitz County’s permitting of it, did so on the grounds that Washington State should not be complicit in Chinese coal burning. As the Sierra Club, which joined the move to stop construction of the terminal, explained, the group opposes “coal shipments to Asia, [because they] lead to more harmful climate change impacts associated with burning the coal.” In other words, the Sierra Club argues that the Longview terminal must be stopped lest Washington State “aid and abet” coal burning anywhere. “This is really about the geopolitics of climate,” says K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions, another group involved in the appeal.

This novel argument represents a new frontier for the environmental movement; one that activists suggest will be a major focus of their efforts going forward. Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based environmental group, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that forcing local officials to consider environmental harm when American fuel is burned in China is now a “core strategy against a huge expansion in the fossil-fuel economy.”

Opponents of the terminal argue that blocking it will have a tangible impact on Chinese energy use. “If we don’t supply it to them, they’re going to have to start thinking about alternatives,” says Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, another environmental group that appealed the permit. Yet this is far from obvious. China mines more than 3 billion tons of coal domestically each year and imports it from Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Canada, and elsewhere. Indeed, China imported over 100 million tons of coal in 2010 alone, and the figures will continue to rise as the country opens an estimated one new coal-fired power plant each month. “China’s going to burn coal. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the Powder River Basin or wherever it comes from, they’re going to burn coal,” notes Joe Canon of Millennium. Thus, blocking coal exports out of Longview may simply cede a key opportunity to other countries, while having no impact on emissions. Opposition may keep certain consciences clean, but not Chinese air.

What’s more, blocking the Longview terminal may not even prevent coal mined in the Powder River Basin from being exported to China. Coal export terminals are now being planned in Ferndale, Washington, in the northwest of the state, and in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Both of these, however, would be situated further from the Powder River Basin than Longview, meaning that, in a delicious irony, more emissions would be expended transporting the coal to those locations for shipping than would be if the coal were simply sent to Longview.

Nonetheless, environmental groups’ arguments seem to have convinced the highest echelons of Washington’s government. Democratic governor Christine Gregoire claims to be neither for nor against the project, yet in early January, her Department of Ecology announced its support for the appeal, claiming that Cowlitz County “should have analyzed greenhouse gas emissions more broadly and not just in the immediate area of the Longview project.” This prompted Montana’s governor Brian Schweitzer, also a Democrat, to travel to Washington State in January to lobby for the project. It was too little, too late: In the face of furious opposition, Millennium withdrew its application for the terminal in mid-March – a move that Cowlitz County commissioner George Raiter called “bad news.” However, Millennium announced shortly thereafter that it intends to restart the application process later this year, thereby guaranteeing another fight.

To be sure, Millennium has done itself no favors throughout the process. Emails that were leaked earlier this year revealed that the company hopes eventually to ship between 20 and 60 million tons of coal out of Longview annually, far more than the 5.7-ton figure that it publicly announced. This threw fuel on the opposition’s fire by implying that Millennium has something to hide. Yet given the philosophical underpinnings of the antagonism towards the terminal, there is seemingly little Millennium could do to quash opposition—save transforming the terminal into one that exports wind turbines and Chevy Volts instead of coal.

Ethan Epstein is a writer in Portland, Oregon.

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