(Casper Star Tribune, November 10) – In between the appetizers at Old Chicago, dinner at the Prime Rib Restaurant and Wine Cellar and tourism videos showing deer, elk and antelope grazing on the grasslands of the Powder River Basin, there was coal. Some 100 million tons of it.
That’s the amount coal companies would annually ship to Asia if three export docks in the Pacific Northwest are built. But Wyoming’s miners must first convince a skeptical public in Oregon and Washington that shipping the carbon-dioxide-laden, Btu-rich mineral abroad is a good idea.
Last week, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, a state agency, and Arch Coal attempted to do just that, welcoming three visitors from the Pacific Northwest on a three-day, two-night, all-expenses-paid trip.
The trio, accompanied by a bevy of company and state officials, toured the Black Thunder coal mine and the coal-fired Dry Fork power plant and admired the gleaming public buildings built with tax money from the industry.
The message: Coal’s not as dirty as you think, and it can be good for your economy too.
“We had a prime rib dinner last night,” marveled Gary Archer, a city councilman from Kelso, Washington, a town neighboring one of the proposed ports. “These guys got it made up here. They got everything they need, except public perception.”
The tour is part of a larger charm offensive by Wyoming officials to sell people from the Pacific Northwest on coal exports. Concerns there range from global warming to the coal dust and traffic congestion caused by snaking rail trains.
Gov. Matt Mead toured Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, Washington, just across the Cowlitz River from Kelso, in June.
State lawmakers and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority Executive Director Loyd Drain have visited Bellingham, Washington, home of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.
And Gillette has welcomed three delegations from the Pacific Northwest this year, counting the one that visited last week.
Ambre Energy has proposed a third export dock at the Port of Morrow in Oregon, but state regulators there denied the company’s application earlier this year. Ambre is appealing the ruling.
The push for the coal exports comes at a time when American utilities increasingly are convertingtheir coal-fired power plants to natural gas or shuttering them altogether.
Coal companies, and Wyoming officials who rely on the revenue generated by their business to finance state government, see energy-hungry Asia as their best hope for limiting those loses.
On the tour, state and local officials tried to correct what they said are misconceptions about the coal industry.
Their convoy of cars stopped as freshly loaded rail cars at Arch’s Black Thunder coal mine were sprayed down with a sealant-like glue used to prevent coal dust from blowing away during the train’s cross-country journey.
Mine officials touted their reclamation efforts, showing off an aerial photo of Black Thunder. See the lush grasslands here, they said. That is reclaimed land. This brown section here is natural. We leave it better than we found it.
And they sought to combat the perception that coal communities are dirty and poor.
Mountaintop mining and black lung disease? Those are problems you find in Appalachia, Campbell County Commissioner Dan Coolidge told the travelers in a presentation at the Wingate Hotel.
“We do it responsibly,” Coolidge assured them.
The tour was organized by the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority and the Northeast Wyoming Municipal Leaders Group. Drain estimated that the WIA’s share of expenses was $5,000 to $6,000.
NEWY, as the municipal group is called, receives sponsorship from companies to help pay for the costs, he said, noting that the dinners were paid for by sponsors.
Their visitors made for a receptive audience.
“I was kind of in favor of it anyway,” said Archer, the Kelso city councilman.
Alice Dietz, director of program at the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, noted that Longview lost 900 jobs when an aluminum smelter at the site of the proposed coal terminal in Longview closed several years ago.
Longview is a town built on the back of the timber industry, she said, adding, “I don’t think it is a light-industry type of place.”
“I am supportive of jobs,” Dietz said. “Being here, it does seem like clean production. As for burning coal itself, it is going to be burnt somewhere.”
Gary MacWilliams didn’t say one way or another if he favored coal exports, but his opinion may have mattered most among those in attendance.
MacWilliams is director of natural resources for the Nooksack Tribe, one of the tribes with fishing rights at Cherry Point, where Gateway Pacific is proposed.
Tribal fishing rights will play a crucial role in whether the coal docks are built. When Oregon rejected Ambre Energy’s proposal at the Port of Morrow, regulators said the project would infringe on tribal fishing rights along that stretch of the Columbia River.
MacWilliams’ presence on the tour represented a victory of sorts for Wyoming officials. Members of the Lummi Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation rejected the state’s invite.
“They’ve been to coal mines and oil fields,” said Chuck Sams, a spokesman for the Umatilla tribes.
The Umatilla board of directors decided it was important to maintain a government-to-government relationship with Wyoming, he said. So the board invited Mead to visit its reservation. The tribes have yet to hear back, he said.
The governor’s office did not respond by press time to a question about the status of the invite.
MacWilliams, during a conversation with local officials, marveled at Gillette College and the area’s recreation center. When you think of coal communities, he said, you think of poor dirty, towns.
“Here it is different,” he said. “Clearly, you’re thriving.”
Whether that represented progress in Wyoming’s coal export campaign remained to be seen.