Election in Washington State dooms giant coal port proposal?

Anti-coal port candidates now appear in charge in Whatcom County-

In recent years there has been a big effort to clear the way to build a huge coal terminal (seaport) near Bellingham, Washington to ship Wyoming and Montana coal to China. This has caused a big controversy in Whatcom County where Bellingham is, next to the Salish Sea (the network of coastal waterways located between Vancouver Island in Canada , and the northwestern tip of Washington state).

Last Tuesday’s local county election might have decided the issue against the coal port.

This battle over the proposed “Gateway Pacific Terminal” at Cherry Point, Washington has local, regional and international ramifications for the economy, the climate, and fish and wildlife. The coal would come from the Powder River Basin which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border. Its excavation, transport to Washington, processing, shipping to China and burning in Chinese coal plants would leave a string of impacts halfway around the Earth. The CO2 from the plants would undo much of the effort to close down and clean up coal plants in the United States.

Some jobs would be created locally and in the Powder River coal pits, but probably many more jobs lost. However, the latter — the lost jobs — would tend to be lost in a diffuse way, making it hard to organize the people who would be hurt.

The Whatcom County Council must decide whether to issue two critical permits that big coal needs to establish the coal port. Other federal and state permits are needed too, but the county permits are crucial.

In the election presumed opponents of the port teamed up with Democrats and the League of Conservation Voters, and some serious money for a big backer in particular and outspent and outhustled the Republican, Big Coal, port boosters. They ran as a team. That was risky because all could lose, but they won instead giving a county council majority to likely oppose coal, and help out the fight to slow the climate from even more change and protect fish, wildlife, and transportation corridor property and the environment from the plan to ship 50 million tons of coal to Asia.

Neither side spoke directly about the coal facility because the commission is supposed to be impartial, but with so much money and organization on both sides it would hard for all be least concerned not to know.

Rarely does such a big issue depend on a local election.







    1. Jayme Miller Avatar
      Jayme Miller

      That plant is owned by Pacificorp, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. The same folk who own the Tongue River Railroad. You may have won an election. But people in very high places with a lot of money still will get this done with or without a couple county commisioners that dont mean diddly. Just the choice is if whatcom wants to lose out.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        Jayme Millier,

        Most of the articles on the Wildlife News are written by people who live in Idaho. We certainly know about poverty here. It is now the second poorest state in the nation.

        1. WM Avatar

          Not sure about that statistic Ralph. I suppose it might be how “poor” is measured. Most rankings show ID firmly in the lowest quartile at around 12th, hanging in there with MA, and WA (14th); but there are at least 10 poorer, mostly in the Southeast (SC, TN, MS, KY, AR, AL, WV, LA) and couple more, and maybe MT, OK and NM depending on the measurement tool.

          But, Idaho could be a whole bunch poorer ….without federal FS and BLM jobs, Idaho National Nuclear lab, and the private forestry jobs from Potlatch.

          1. Jon Way Avatar

            It is interesting that 3 of the 4 things you mention are federal jobs. Maybe ID elected officials should read up on their sources of employment for their citizens before they spill out more anti-gov’t rants!!!

  1. Jayme Miller Avatar
    Jayme Miller

    2000 jobs in southeast montana. One of the porrest places in the united state and near the Northern Cheyenne reservation where unemployment is over 80% and there is no hope of getting a job. Not to mention nearly $500 million in capital investments in the region. $200 million in tax revenues to the state for schools. Jobs that pay well over the national average and dont rely on things like Obamacare. I bet none of you have ever been where I live. To say jobs would be loss if its built is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. The only jobs that will be loss is in whatcom county as those trains of coal roll by on the way to Canada.

  2. Rich Avatar


    Turns out there are also a few folks in Washington State who are considered wealthy but not too keen on our State becoming a coal and rail port for Montana’s burnable dirt, eg, founders and cofounders of Microsoft, Amazon, MaCaw Cellular and many lesser known companies. In addition, there is a governor (Jay Inslee) and now county commissioners who will actually have more than a modicum of influence on how our resources are used. Washington is also the current home and birthplace of an abundance of conservationists including legendary Hazel Wolf. Clearly, you, the coal kings in Montana/Wyoming and rail magnates like Warren Buffet think we are going to roll over and welcome more coal trains clogging our transportation infrastructure and our ports for shipment of their archaic dirty commodities. A word to the wise – don’t put all your money on the line just yet.

    1. WM Avatar

      I would not be a bit surprised that this isn’t over yet. Warren Buffet will sit down with the Microsofties, Craig McCaw et al., Jeff Bezos et al., and over a soda they will talk about how well their Hathaway shares will NOT do without a little help on the Gateway Terminal. The EIS is not done yet, and Governor Enslee hasn’t been pressured by the labor folks that got him elected (think trades and longshoremen jobs for construction and operation of the terminal). This is all still about two years or more off. Can the Whatcom County (and adjacent San Juan County) Commissioners stop economic progress for a deep water port that might do more than trans port coal, like a little grain, or accept imports. Boeing hasn’t weighed in yet, either.

      The fat lady won’t sing on this one for awhile.

      1. DLB Avatar

        Do you support the proposed terminal in Whatcom County?

        1. WM Avatar


          What will it do to my Bershire Hathaway stock value? Just kidding. I don’t own any.

          Seriously, why would anyone want to send coal to China only to have the atmospheric particulates/combustion by-products come back to pollute the Western Hemisphere. The number of coal trains/cars is staggering even if they can control coal dust during loading/transport/unloading. I wonder if the EIS will focus on the impacts of how the dominant coal product is consumed by the end user, and that sort of thing – like potential impacts to global warming/climate change. And, would it be an appropriate reason (federal/state action)to deny, if the thing is likely to be built anyway, but in Canada (where say Vancouver would get the terminal construction and operation jobs),but the pollution comes this direction, or global impacts result, just the same?

          The other externality that comes to mind immediately is why subsidize China’s manufacturing by sending them our coal to make power, and they get even more manufacturing jobs for products they would sell cheaper to the rest of the world, while we and other countries get the environmental degradation.

          The questions Gateway Terminal raises are a whole lot bigger than some county board of supervisors issuing or not issuing land use permits, though they are one set of decision-makers.

          I’d like to see a couple of well done EIS’s before weighing in.

  3. jdubya Avatar

    I am thinking of moving to Montana so the more depressed the real estate prices the better. Those 2000 jobs will just drive up the price of land. How can I be gentry if there aren’t any peasants?

  4. snaildarter Avatar

    Coal is a really bad way to make electricity, but a really good way to use up fresh water supplies, pollute waterways with coal ash filled with toxics, create acid rain that burns up forest and kills trout and salmon, also it fills fish with mercury that poisons children’s brains and it heats up the planet. Not to mention the ugly hole in the ground caused by strip mining.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Going through with this doesn’t say much for our country’s commitment to clean energy. This is why I feel that it is too late to address climate change; the economy and jobs will always trump environmental concerns. But I hope I’m proven wrong.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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