As if US coal producers didn’t have enough to worry about, now they have the US Army nipping at their heels. The Army has been contributing to the drop in domestic coal demand by transitioning to more sustainable energy, and in the latest development, earlier this week the US Army Corps of Engineers suspended the permitting process for a proposed new coal export terminal in Washington State.
Just a few years ago, coal accounted for a full 50 percent of US power generation. As gorgeously illustrated by the Washington Post, last year coal was down to roughly 34 percent. The coal industry has been counting on exports to fill the gap, but it looks like USACE has put the damper on that, at least for now.
The Gateway Pacific Coal Export Terminal Is Toast
The Gateway Pacific project has been sailing under the CleanTechnica radar (except for this piece), but the proposed coal export terminal has been making headlines all over the Pacific Northwest. The basic idea is to provide an economical way to get product from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, over to China.
The objections have loud and many from communities in and around the proposed location, including Native Americans. The Lummi Nation brought its case to USACE, resulting in a determination from the agency that effectively put the coal export facility on ice:
After careful consideration of all the information available to him, Seattle District Commander Col. John Buck has determined the potential impacts to the Lummi Nation’s usual and accustomed (U&A) fishing rights from the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal are greater than de minimis.
In a press release announcing its decision, USACE emphasized that it took into consideration its obligation to deny permits for projects that would abrogate Native American treaty rights:
The Lummi Nation signed the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1855, which established the Suquamish Port Madison, Tulalip, Swinomish, and Lummi reservations and guaranteed fishing rights in perpetuity at each tribes’ Usual and Accustomed (U&A) fishing areas. The GPT [Gateway Pacific Terminal] project area is included in their U&A fishing area.
Way to shut the door, right? USACE also noted that if for some reason the Lummi Nation decides to withdraw its objections, the agency would be obligated to consider any applicable objections from other tribes:
A number of other tribes have expressed concern about effects of the proposal on their treaty rights, so if processing of the application resumes, consultation with those tribes would occur as needed to collect information and make decisions with respect to effects of the proposal on their rights.
That probably won’t happen. Speaking in support of USACE’s determination, Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew has made it clear that the weather in hell would have to be quite unseasonable before the Lummi Nation lifts its objections to the coal terminal (as cited by Indian Country Today reporter Richard Walker):
…This decision is a win for the treaty and protects our sacred site. Our ancient ones at Xwe’chieXen, Cherry Point, will rest protected. Because of this decision, the water we rely on to feed our families, for our ceremonies and for commercial purposes, remains protected. The impact of a coal terminal on our treaty fishing rights would be severe, irreparable and impossible to mitigate.
The full article, “‘Historic Victory for Treaty Rights’: Northwest Tribes Rejoice as Army Corps Rejects Coal Terminal,” includes many more details from those “other tribes” referenced by USACE. If the coal terminal backers plan on fighting USACE over its Lummi determination, they’re going to have to start the whole process again multiple times.
You can also find many more details about the GPT project at Coal Age.
For the record, Gateway Pacific isn’t the only proposed coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest to hit the skids.
On its face, the USACE coal terminal decision was narrowly focused on the agency’s legal obligation to protect treaty rights.
However, the decision also dovetails perfectly with USACE’s environmental mission, as represented in the graphic at the top of this article. USACE introduced its environmental principles in 2002 under the Bush Administration and has honed them over the years to address climate change directly.
The agency has been hammering the sustainability mindset into its DNA, even down to its new LEED certified offices in Seattle.
USACE is also playing a direct role in phasing out coal domestically, for example through its $7 billion renewable energy program.
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Image: via US Army Corps of Engineers.
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