Politicizing coal export opportunities misses the mark

March 29, 2013 

We’ve heard a lot of discussion about the costs and benefits of new coal export facilities in the Northwest, and there’ll be a lot more talk to come. That’s as it should be in Washington, where we are as passionate about the environment and quality of life as we are about a vibrant economy. But two factors have been largely absent from the discussions: First, the potential consequences of changing the existing rules for economic investment in the Northwest need careful review. Opponents of export facilities are advocating unprecedented changes in the environmental review process.

For starters, they want several unrelated projects to be reviewed as one.

What’s more, they want this process to cover not only the export facility itself, but all associated transportation and freight movement that supports the project.

Think about it. Imagine the consequences of having to review all passenger car, truck and rail traffic across the globe that results from a new Boeing plant. Or an environmental impact study for a new grain export facility, that requires every farm that could export their products through that facility to be included in the study.

That’s what coal export opponents are seeking.

Simply put, this is an unprecedented overreach of the environmental review process that would, without question, jeopardize future investment for projects in the Northwest.

It will signal to any business wanting to expand or relocate in the region that it will likely be tied up in regulatory knots far beyond any reasonable planning requirements.

The second factor is the cost of politicizing access to transportation. What should be a question about expanding America’s export markets for a key commodity has been turned into an ideologically driven political mud fight.

Opponents are making up scary stories about farmers being unable to ship by rail, trains blocking rail crossings and other alarming scenarios.

What we should be concerned about is the future of rail. The state’s transportation plan recognizes$2 billion in rail needs, 90 percent of which is unfunded. Consistent investment and growth for rail operators is necessary for maintaining and improving freight rail service.

The ability of special interests to pick and choose what goods and services can access our state’s infrastructure is not a path to growth.

Farmers depend on rail service to move more than $15 billion worth of products through our ports each year to help feed the world.

If we are to be able to continue to grow our exports and domestic production, we must have access to a viable rail system. Gov. Jay Inslee called for a “complete, consistent, reliable evaluation” of all impacts associated with expanding coal exports. We agree, as long as we also carefully evaluate the costs of this unprecedented expansion of our environmental review process. The free movement of goods is the cornerstone of our prosperity and way of life. This is so basic. We must move forward without delay on expanding our export capabilities. Mike LaPlant is president of the Washington Farm Bureau.

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