Millennium Bulk Terminals EIS and the future for fossil fuel exports

On April 28, Cowlitz County and the Department of Ecology finally released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) project—more than five years after the project was proposed. The EIS is required under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). As we’ve written in 2014 and 2016, Ecology has recently required select projects (including MBT) to undergo an expanded SEPA process that includes consideration of lifecycle and global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the product being exported (in this case, coal).

The final EIS finds several unavoidable and significant adverse environmental impacts that could remain even after mitigation. (For example, if rail capacity isn’t expanded, there could be adverse impacts on rail transportation.) Many other issues could be addressed with mitigation.

According to the Department of Ecology, key findings include:

  • “Increased locomotive diesel particulate matter, a toxic air pollutant, is expected to cause an unavoidable increase in cancer risk rates in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview." [BNSF responds to this here.]
  • "Slow-moving, 1.3-mile-long trains could cause traffic jams during peak commute times in Cowlitz County."
  • "Environmental modeling found that the amount of coal dust deposited along train tracks and at the proposed terminal would not exceed air quality standards for human health."
  • "Transporting, handling, and burning the coal overseas is projected to increase global greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million metric tons. The final study proposes mitigation for the full increase.” [The two million figure is the average annual emissions.]

According to the EIS summary, public comments on the draft EIS “most commonly . . . centered on climate change and potential air quality impacts.” There were also concerns “tied to the cumulative impacts of the Proposed Action with other reasonably foreseeable actions, including coal export terminal proposals in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada.”

The EIS finds that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “attributable to operations of the Proposed Action” are adverse and significant. But these impacts are avoidable: MBT would have to mitigate for 100 percent of the emissions. This could be done by buying carbon credits, for example.

The EIS estimates that GHG emissions associated with the terminal and coal exported through it would be 22.36 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent over the 2018–2038 period. Of that, just 0.06 MMT would occur in Cowlitz County and 4.57 MMT in the rest of Washington.

The Daily News editorializes, “What other business has been asked to mitigate the carbon emissions of other companies?” As the newspaper points out, although the final EIS expects MBT to mitigate 100 percent of the global GHG emissions, the draft EIS had called for mitigation of 50 percent. (Note, though, that the draft EIS estimated that emissions from 2018–2038 would total 37.6 MMT—much larger than the final estimate of 22.4 MMT.) 

The EIS considers cumulative impacts from 19 other “reasonably foreseeable future actions.” Just how “reasonably foreseeable” is debatable, unfortunately. As KUOW reports,

The Northwest's other five coal-export terminal proposals targeted ports on Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and in coastal communities. They were either withdrawn or failed to win needed permits. All drew a mix of support from those who saw them as job creators and stiff opposition from tribes, environmental groups, and others who warned of negative impacts on the environment, the climate and quality of life.

Still, the 19 projects considered include some we have discussed previously (see here and here): Contanda (formerly Westway), Renewable Energy Group Expansion Project (formerly Imperium), Vancouver Energy Project and Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). (The inclusion of GPT illustrates a hazard of taking so long to finish the EIS—the analysis was overtaken by events. As the EIS notes of GPT, “Application withdrawn on February 7, 2017. Application was active when the cumulative analysis was completed.”)

In considering the cumulative impacts on GHG emissions specifically, the EIS includes MBT, GPT and seven planned or existing terminals in British Columbia. Altogether, the cumulative proposed action scenario would result in a net increase of global GHG emissions in 2038 of 31.47 MMT. (Of that, 0.04 MMT would be in Cowlitz County and 0.37 MMT would be in Washington.)

As the Ecology press release notes, this is not a final decision on the project. The EIS will be used by the 10 agencies that will be deciding whether to approve the more than 20 permits the project will need.

The Daily News thinks the EIS doesn’t bode well for the project’s chances. And, as I’ve written, the expanded SEPA isn’t the only ongoing challenge to new fossil fuel projects in our region.

Two days before the EIS was released, the premier of British Columbia called on Canada’s prime minister to ban thermal coal shipments from ports in British Columbia. The request is ostensibly related to the recent U.S. decision to impose duties on Canadian softwood lumber, but, as Sightline points out, the premier would ban all coal shipments, not just those from the U.S. Indeed, she writes that this is “a matter we have been considering for some time.” Additionally, she writes,

. . . over the past five years, every proposed coal export facility on the West Coast of the United States has been rejected or withdrawn, typically as a result of ecological or environmental concerns.

For years, American thermal (or steam) coal exports moving through Canada have been increasing due to a shortage of U.S. port capacity. In 2016, 6.2 million tonnes of U.S. thermal coal was exported through the Port of Vancouver. The Port forecasts this volume to steadily rise as coal demand rises in Asia and U.S. port capacity is maintained or falls due to state and regional opposition.

Last week the prime minister said he has “asked federal trade officials to further examine the request to inform our Government’s next steps.” (His letter seems pretty noncommittal.)

Additionally, in our 2016 report, we mentioned that the Spokane County Council had withdrawn a proposed ordinance from the ballot in 2016 that would have fined trains carrying crude oil or uncovered coal through the city. The Inlander ran a good story last week about what happened, and the continuing activism against oil and coal trains. According to the story, voter signatures have been gathered to possibly get the initiative on the 2017 ballot. (If the MBT is approved, coal from Montana and Wyoming would be shipped by train to the terminal through Spokane.)

If MBT isn’t built, that doesn’t mean the coal won’t be exported and used for electricity. But Washington may lose out on the jobs and tax revenues.

As Opportunity Washington writes, there is a

prosperity divide between the metro Seattle urban core and much of the rest of the state. How the state handles the permitting of these projects will make a difference to the economies of the affected communities and send a message to other manufacturers and exporters considering expansion in our state.

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