by Steve Guntli
U.S. Representative Steve Daines (R-Montana) visited Washington last week to show support for the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project at Cherry Point.
On October 2, Daines, along with union and tribal representatives from Montana, voiced his support for the controversial project, which could potentially be worth millions to his state’s coal mining industry.
“It is critical we make this facility happen,” Daines said. “This will serve as an important economic driver, both for the people of my home state of Montana, as well as the people here in Washington, who will greatly benefit from the increased export capacity the terminal will bring.”
The GPT project would allow more than 48 million tons of fossil fuels per year to be exported from Whatcom County to countries along the Pacific Rim. Most of the coal being exported would come from the Powder River Basin, which is located in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming.
Montana is home to an estimated 25 percent of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves. Finding a ready customer for the state’s coal could stimulate growth in Montana’s coal mining industry.
“Montana’s natural resource-based economy relies greatly on the ability to get our goods to market,” said Bruce Wright, vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau. “Last year, Montana exports totaled more than $1.5 billion in merchandise. That’s a huge force for our state.”
The United States has gradually been cutting its coal consumption over the last decade. Increasingly, coal developers have been seeking to make inroads in the Asian market, particularly in China, which is the world’s largest coal consumer.
China has recently enacted stricter environmental regulations on so-called “dirty” coal, banning coal with ash content more than 16 percent and sulfur content more than 1 percent in all major population centers. Powder River Basin coal is low in ash and sulfur, which makes it an attractive prospect for China, as well as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, which have similar regulations against “dirty” coal.
The terminal project has faced vocal opposition from Whatcom County residents. Concerns have been raised about the environmental effects caused by coal and other fossil fuels and increased coal train traffic, noise and pollution.
SSA Marine, the company that has proposed the GPT, insists the terminal will meet all environmental standards and be a boon for the economy, producing up to 4,400 jobs during its two years of construction and 1,250 permanent jobs once the terminal is complete. The number of permanent jobs that would directly affect Whatcom County, however, remains unclear, and concerns have been raised that the increase in mile-and-a-half-long train traffic would hurt the economy by cutting off access to waterfront areas in Blaine and Bellingham.
Whatcom County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Ecology are currently subjecting the proposed terminal to a lengthy Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to ensure that the facility will be in compliance with state environmental regulations. The EIS is scheduled to be published this fall.