U.S. energy exports have increased dramatically over the last decade — roughly tripling since 2003. A major component of our exports is coal which has been increasing by 20% a year. One of the ironies of the Kyoto Agreement, is that while the U.S. has significantly decreased coal use and carbon, our trading partners have not.
This is partly caused by U.S. environmental law which is very strict compared to most countries, but mainly reflects prices and technology. The price of wholesale natural gas and electricity — competitors to coal and oil — are at historically low levels. One of the largest coal based generation companies has declared bankruptcy recently simply because they could not compete with other fuels.
This is of scant comfort in Eastmoreland. The major north-south rail link on the west coast passes under the Bybee Bridge. On any given day thousands of tons of merchandise pass by our neighborhood, adding to noise, congestion, and pollution. The railroad is a fact of nature. Under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, local authorities have very limited say in rail operations. Sadly, we can’t just hold an election and ask them to move their tracks elsewhere. And, as you know, we have spent a hundred years trying to keep our neighboring rail yard, quiet, safe, and clean — with both victories and losses.
The current coal train issue concerns Project Mainstay at the Port of Coos Bay. The port wants to expand economic opportunities in their area — a laudable ambition — by shipping coal from the Powder River Basin, through our neighborhood, to Pacific markets.
As an energy expert I have severe doubts about this and similar plans. We buy energy from abroad — primarily oil — at prices three for times as high as the energy we export on an apples to apples basis. Part of this involves markets — we have competitive markets and our trading partners often do not — and part reflects preferences for energy sources. Simply put, we buy high and sell low. This is not a winning strategy.
On the environmental front, we are closing U.S. coal stations — subject to relatively stringent environmental regulation — and shipping the coal to countries without environmental regulations. While we are all concerned with global warming, China and European coal stations are also on the globe. The net environmental impact of shipping our coal to other countries is to increase to risk to the environment.
So, sadly, we are not likely to see the Port of Coos Bay eye to eye. Nor the railroads and coal firms that would profit from selling bargain U.S. coal to foreign customers.
What can we do? First and foremost, we need to demand environmental protections for ourselves, our children, and the elderly. A single coal train can have 120 to 150 cars — more than two miles long. Oregon has few controls over pollution, unlike other states like California. The emissions are not currently monitored, nor is the railroad forced to consider health impacts from dramatic increases in traffic. These are issues that need to be communicated to your Congressional representatives and the President.
And our little valley from Milwaukie Avenue to Reed College Place that contains the rail line to Coos Bay as well as increased trucking from the Brooklyn Yards, is the area of the city most likely to face the emissions impacts of increased coal exports.
— Robert McCullough, ENA Board President