Pro-coal export business alliance launches in Northwest
By Christina Williams
Sustainable Business Oregon editor
A new business alliance in the Pacific Northwest is touting the vast economic benefits its members say will be brought to the Pacific Northwest along with coal export projects.
A campaign extolling the economic benefits of coal export facilities in the Northwest launched Thursday morning, the work of a new group: the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports.
The alliance, operated by the public relations firm Edelman and counting coal companies, chambers of commerce, rail companies and barge manufacturers among its members, was formed to give voice to the economic development arguments held by those in favor of proposed export facilities.
"The alliance came together because there's been a lot of press coverage about the issue and it's been coming from one direction, primarily," said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the alliance. "There's another side of the story specifically regarding how important trade is the economy."
The story that the alliance aims to tell is the one that highlights the thousands of new jobs and millions in tax revenue that the group says will be generated by coal export projects in Oregon and Washington.
The argument will be made in lawmaker offices in addition to television commercials as the group's 501c6 designation permits trade association lobbying. And it will counter the opposition's message that coal facilities are bad for the environment and that long coal trains will adversely impact the communities along the export route.
|Ongoing coverage of the NW coal export debate >>|
"The economic benefits, especially the job benefits, will be narrowly focused," said Ross Macfarlane, senior adviser for business partnerships at the Seattle-based environmental policy group Climate Solutions. "A lot of business interests are going to be seeing significant negative economic impacts."
Macfarlane said that Climate Solutions has collected signature from more than 400 Northwest businesses expressing concern and opposition to coal export facilities.
But for Alan Sprott, vice president at Vigor Industrial LLC, the question is not just about coal, it's about the Northwest's export capacity and opening the door to more trade with Asia.
"There's an opportunity for manufacturers to participate in this and grow our capabilities," Sprott said.
Sprott pointed to research work going on in China around cleaner coal technologies such as carbon sequestration and coal gasification, saying that the Northwest could benefit from taking part in that work.
"If we sit on the sidelines and don't participate in that, they will shrug their shoulders and shake their head and go get coal from somewhere else," Sprott said.
Vigor Industrial has signed a letter of intent with the developers of the Morrow Pacific coal export project, one of at a half-dozen under consideration in the Pacific Northwest, to build five barges if the project lands the permits and financing it needs. That contract would be worth $20 million to Vigor, which sees about $400 million in annual revenue, and would prompt the hiring of as many as 200 workers.
"We're not in this because we get one $20 million order," Sprott said. "We see the need to continue to advocate for and growth this kind of industry in the Northwest and get out of the economic doldrums we continue to slip into."
While reports of large potential contracts, like the ones for coal-hauling barges, and warm welcomes from several port managers eager to see the business have popped up on the news, so have stories about protests against the potential environmental impacts.
Hennessey said the alliance was formed with the express intention of getting out information about the positive aspects of the coal industry.
"There are a lot of big-picture questions that the alliance can help answer," she said. "We want to help peole get through the confusion." Climate Solutions' Macfarlane, however, said he thinks coal companies would have preferred to work quietly to get the needed approvals for their projects without working through a trade group like the alliance. "I think they were caught very flat-footed to the extent that concerns of communities and businesses have rapidly gone viral," he said.
Founding members of the dues-supported alliance include coal companies including Ambre Energy, developer of the Morrow Pacific project and a partner in another export facility proposal, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. Gunderson Marine and fellow barge-maker Vigor Industrial have also signed on along with rail companies Union Pacific and BNSF. A current list of members is available at the alliance's website.
Both Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Jeff Merkley have requested a comprehensive and collective environmental review of all the proposed coal projects. A decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about whether or not the agency will agree to do that should come this summer.
OPB's EarthFix reported this week on a poll showing that a majority of residents in Oregon, Washington and Idaho support transporting coal through the Pacific Northwest.
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