(Casper Star Tribune, June 6) – Now in the throes of election season, Gov. Matt Mead hit the campaign trail this week. But the governor, who faces two challengers in August’s Republican primary, did not shake hands in Cheyenne or pose for pictures in Sheridan.
He went to Longview, Washington.
The governor’s two-day whirlwind visit through the city of 36,000 on the banks of the Columbia River represents the latest effort by Wyoming politicians to boost the fortunes of a coal terminal proposed there.
On the trip, he met with local elected officials and business leaders and the editorial board of the local newspaper, the Longview Daily News.
“I think it is vital for the future of coal in Wyoming — and thus Wyoming, and beyond that, the future of the country — to have coal be a big part of our future because it provides such a competitive advantage because of the low-cost electricity it will produce,” Mead told the Star-Tribune on Thursday. “And the pressures we see on coal now, one of the things that would certainly help is the ability to export.”
Wyoming mining companies and the state’s political leadership have turned their attention to Asia in recent years, amid flagging domestic demand and a tightening regulatory environment.
Their hope: coal-consuming countries like Taiwan, South Korea and China will replace the demand lost here in America. The three terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest — in Boardman, Oregon, in Bellingham, Washington, and in Longview — are the outlets for that coal, bridging Wyoming’s mines with Asia’s power plants.
But the effort faces considerable obstacles, particularly in the form of Washington’s and Oregon’s Democratic governors, Jay Inslee and John Kitzhaber, respectively.
“What you have here is two of the greenest governors in the U.S.,” said Floyd McKay, journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University and a longtime observer of the coal export debate in both states. “It would be hard to find two governors who would be less likely to support heavy-duty coal exports.”
The Washington Department of Ecology announced in February that its environmental study of the Longview project would include analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions burned at power plants in Asia. Kitzbaher announced his opposition to the Oregon terminal in April.
The projects will not advance without state approval.
Mead and Inslee notably did not speak before the Wyoming governor’s arrival in the Evergreen State. An Inslee representative told the Longview Daily News that the Washington state executive learned of Mead’s trip through a press release a week earlier.
On Thursday, Mead said the pair spoke on the telephone during his trip.
“I’m very sensitive that I’m in your state and want to make the case to what we think this could mean for Wyoming and your state,” Mead said, recounting their conversation.
Mead said he raised his concerns over Washington’s environmental study of the proposal and the precedent it sets for other commodities like apples and jets the state ships abroad.
“I’d characterize the conversation as very pleasant and cordial,” Mead said. “That conservation will continue with the state of Washington and the governor, but I do think we have a really good case to make it.”
Longview is perhaps the most supportive of the three communities where a terminal has been proposed, McKay said.
The coal terminal proposed there would be built on a site that once housed an aluminum smelter. Conventional wisdom holds that officials in Cowlitz County, where Longview is located, will approve the project, McKay said.
The project has the strong support of labor unions, which want to see the construction and operations jobs the terminal would bring, said state Rep. Dean Takko, a Democratic lawmaker who represents the region.
Takko said he is neither for nor against the project but believes that the developer, Ambre Energy, has the right to develop its property if it can secure the proper permits.
The project is strongly opposed locally by environmentalists, about 60 of whom rallied to protest Mead’s visit Tuesday.
“The citizens of Longview and Washington have made it incredibly clear they don’t want coal exports in their region polluting the air and the global climate,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group that organized the protest.
She expressed frustration that all of Mead’s meetings were closed to the general public.
Rail congestion remains the largest local concern, all those interviewed for this story agreed. Coal trains running to the terminal travel directly through town and a key intersection already plagued by traffic.
“I think the one real Achilles’ heel is rail congestion,” Takko said, noting that train backups could cut Longview in two and prevent emergency personnel from reaching calls on the other side of town.
Mead called those concerns legitimate and said Wyoming stands ready to help address traffic challenges. The state can also help alleviate fears over coal dust, the governor said, noting that many of the people he talked to were unaware of the chemicals applied to keep dust from blowing from trains.
Whether the trip was successful or not depended on whom you asked.
“It keeps this issue and the discussion going forward and gives us all an ability to find a solution to get this done,” Mead said.
Diane Dick, vice president of Cowlitz County’s Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, a group opposed to the project, called the trip a “disappointment.”
It showed Mead cares more about coal company profits than citizens’ health and well-being, she said.
The governor’s visit likely did not move the dial one way or another, Takko said. Environmentalists are already dug in on the issue, he said.
“I think it was a good trip in that it shows there are two sides to this,” Takko said. “It certainly is an uphill climb, (and) I don’t how steep the slope is.”