Coal trains are a-comin’, and two new reports suggest different futures for the Northwest – Spokane in particular – when they do.
One, prepared for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, concludes the construction of coal ports in Oregon and Washington will generate $6 billion in economic benefits to the region, including the Wyoming and Montana mines where the coal will originate. Its destination: Asia, where demand for coal in China alone could increase more than 50 percent by 2035.
The second, done for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, says coal trains could almost double the rail traffic through Spokane and Spokane Valley, now at 60 trains per day.
Both studies are self-serving. The alliance consists of coal, railroad and labor interests that will benefit greatly from coal exports. The resource councils have been fighting coal development in the Powder River Basin for more than 30 years.
Mine owners covet the Asian market for themselves, and because generators fueled by natural gas are displacing plants in the Midwest and East that burn basin coal. And despite the long distances to India, for example, coal from Wyoming can be cost-competitive with more local sources.
Most of that cost is transportation, and the best way to reduce those costs is using the shortest possible route. The council-commissioned study, “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” says that route runs through Spokane for BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, and assumes track to the south would be used only to relieve congestion. BNSF rejects that premise.
How many trains will be required depends on coal demand, and how many and where coal export terminals are built. The only ports now are in British Columbia, and some trains are already passing through Spokane on their way west and north. Terminals are proposed at Longview and Cherry Point in Washington, and Coos Bay, St. Helens and Boardman in Oregon. Coal railed to Boardman would be barged downstream on the Columbia River.
BNSF Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose told the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver that he expects a maximum 16 loaded trains through the Columbia Gorge. Empty trains would return via Stampede Pass or the Cascade Tunnel.
The coal companies behind Longview have already started the permitting process, and how the agencies responsible for the environmental impact studies will review port plans will determine how much weight is given concerns like more frequent blocked railroad crossings in Spokane Valley.
Terminal backers want those studies confined to the project sites. Terminal foes want the reviews to include every impact from mine to port, which would sweep into the process many communities with nothing to gain from more train traffic except noise and diesel exhaust. Those will be factors for Spokane, but so is the prospect for more investment and more train crews to handle the extra loads.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Washington Department of Ecology want a cumulative review of all the port projects and associated impacts on transportation, rather than narrow, individual studies of each port. That is the only way to go.