Army Corps deals blow to green groups on coal exports

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The political tussle over how expansive a review the Army Corps should conduct has played out most fervently in the Pacific Northwest, pitting labor and industry groups against environmentalists.

Green groups, along with some congressional Democrats, have urged the Army Corps to conduct an area-wide, programmatic environmental impact statement for the proposed export terminals. That would be an unusual step for the Army Corps, insiders have said.

The effort has some powerful backers, including Democratic Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington. The state executives have urged President Obama to consider the projects' climate change impact.

Green groups and some congressional Democrats also have argued the Army Corps should look at the cumulative effects of coal dust pollution on communities and waterways from transporting coal via railroad.

But Moyer said the Army Corps review would remain limited in scope, saying, “The scope of our analysis with respect to these proposals is defined by law and regulation.”

That's a victory for export backers. Industry groups say the regulatory battle has already proved costly, as three applicants have withdrawn proposals to build terminals in Oregon and Washington.

On the emissions issue, Moyer said the Army Corps could not consider what burning coal in Asia — the expected destination of West Coast coal exports — would do to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Moyer said the Corps would restrain its review to the emissions produced at the proposed coal export terminals. She explained that emissions from burning coal in Asia are “too far removed” to be considered a direct effect of the Corps’s impending decisions.

Moyer’s comments were welcome news for Rep. Ed WhitfieldEd WhitfieldWhy Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog What Azerbaijan wants from Israel? Overnight Energy: Green group sues Exxon over climate science MORE (R-Ky.), the subcommittee chairman, and the committee’s Republicans.

Whitfield referenced reports that said Obama was considering using the National Environmental Policy Act — which the Army Corps is using to review the coal terminals — to require federal agencies to weigh the greenhouse gas impact of their decisions.

Industry groups and Republicans have feared such an order would restrict trade of coal and natural gas, as well as automobiles and heavy machinery. 

Whitfield agreed with Moyer’s stance that evaluating emissions of trading partners was not in the Corps’s jurisdiction, saying that was “the right decision.”

But Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, criticized Moyer’s view.

He said the Army Corps should consider the effect climate change could have on sea levels and navigable waters, the latter of which is within the Army Corps’s jurisdiction.

“I think the Corps is making a big mistake,” Waxman told Moyer, later adding, “I think you should reconsider your position.”