Coal exports could face roadblocks if Democrats maintain Senate control

Companies that want to export coal to Asia could find roadblocks in their path if Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) becomes chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Exporters have identified five ports in Oregon and Washington from which to send coal to Asia. Nations in that region, which have rapidly expanding economies and loose environmental standards, are a coveted destination for coal producers as use of the fossil fuel drops in the United States.

But Wyden, who is expected to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) as committee chairman if Democrats retain the Senate, is skeptical about sending coal abroad. He has called for more rigorous environmental reviews of each terminal proposal, which many say could hold up coal exports from the Pacific Northwest.

Wyden wants the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the environmental impact of mining and transporting coal on a more stringent standard, rather than the current plan.

“Senator Wyden believes federal regulators need to take a close look at the economic and environmental impacts of these coal export proposals,” Keith Chu, Wyden’s spokesman, told The Hill. “Oregonians in Morrow and St. Helens and Coos Bay, as well as those in communities along the transportation routes, have a right to know how these developments will affect them, sooner rather than later.”

Much of that coal would come from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Wyden said he is concerned about the impact that activity could have, and also about coal dust settling in communities along the transportation route.

The Environmental Protection Agency also has raised concerns about coal dust, diesel pollution and the effect exports would have on Asian greenhouse gas emissions.

Republican Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi say the more rigorous environmental analysis Wyden seeks would “set a dangerous precedent.”

“[E]xpanding the scope of or delaying the environmental review process for new port facilities would create uncertainty for ongoing and future exports of coal from the Powder River Basin as well as Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, and West Virginia,” the senators told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Army Secretary John McHugh in an August letter.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that coal exports rose 24 percent in the first six months of the year. Exports to Asia experienced a small increase, but insiders said that is largely due to the lack of Pacific Northwest export terminals.

The coal export issue has so far failed to resonate in Idaho, through which all Powder River Basin coal would need to pass to get to Pacific Northwest ports, an aide for Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) told The Hill.

That could change, the aide said, especially with a Wyden chairmanship, and if Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is still on the committee. The two would likely seek to bring the issue to light because their constituents are asking for it, the aide said.

The Risch aide said the power of the gavel would give Wyden license to call however many hearings he wants on the issue.

That would impede progress on coal exports through the Pacific Northwest, an official with industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) told The Hill.

Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which supports the ports, said the issue is starting to gain traction in the Pacific Northwest, putting Democrats in a tough spot as union groups butt heads with environmentalists.

She said Wyden’s “unprecedented” request for the more intensive environmental analysis could be viewed as a way to stall progress on the ports.

“The challenge is that this will be determined by the Corps of Engineers,” she told The Hill. “And while Sen. Wyden is very well respected, he is not the head of the Corps of Engineers.”

Though generally viewed as easy to work with, Wyden might try to make political hay of a bread-and-butter issue for his constituents, the ACCCE official said. And he’ll have a partner in the White House if Obama gets reelected, the official said.

Wyden already has pressed Obama on coal exports through the Pacific Northwest.

Wyden and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) told Obama in a May letter that he should employ executive power to halt energy exports to allow more time for economic and environmental studies.

The Democratic lawmakers cited the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which permits preventing energy exports if they conflict with national interest.

“We believe it is critical that you exercise this authority,” Wyden and Markey said, citing potential energy price increases and harm to public health.

This story was updated at 7:54 a.m. to reflect the type of environmental review Sen. Wyden seeks.