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Millennium Bulk Terminals of Longview, Washington, is making plans for a facility along the Columbia River that would export up to 44 million tons of coal a year to Asia, increasing U.S. exports of coal by 40 percent. But, the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) of the proposed coal-export terminal has residents fearing for the health of people and the planet.

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By Zoe Loftus-Farren

The Oakland City Council took a strong stand against coal Monday night. Following a long and often emotional city council meeting—during which whistles and cheers were at times met with boos and yelling—the council passed an ordinance prohibiting the storage and handling of coal and petcoke at Oakland facilities and a resolution that would specifically apply the ordinance to the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), which is being built on the old Oakland Army Base.

The Oakland City Council voted 7-0 to ban coal storage and handling in Oakland.

The meeting drew hundreds of impassioned Oakland residents, including representatives from the labor, faith, environmental and health communities, as well as the terminal developers. Those speaking against the terminal emphasized that West Oakland already suffers the effects of disproportionate air pollution. They argued that added particulate pollution tied to the coal export terminal could elevate the risk of health problems like asthma, cancer and lung and heart disease.

Several speakers also pointed to climate change and it's impact both globally and in Oakland.

"There is strong evidence that if coal is not shipped from OBOT, it will not be shipped and combusted at all," Linda Rudolph, director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project at the Public Health Institute, said, speaking to the city council prior to the vote.

"If coal is shipped from OBOT, the greenhouse gas emissions from burning that coal will be greater than that from all five bay area oil refineries. It will contribute significantly to climate change and climate change is the defining health challenge of this century. It's a serious threat to the health of Oakland residents."

Those speaking on behalf of the project said that measures could be taken to mitigate the impacts from coal and emphasized the jobs associated with the terminal project.

"[The terminal] will be the source of generational prosperity for many of the … un- and underemployed residents and most important, it will be safe," said Jerry Bridges, president and CEO of Terminal Logistics Solutions, which will operate OBOT. (Labor representatives, however, spoke out strongly against the use of the terminal for coal shipments, rejecting the idea that the issue is one of jobs versus community health or justice and pointing out that the terminal will create jobs regardless of the specific commodities shipped through it).

The buildup to the vote has been considerable. Oakland residents and activists have been advocating against coal exports since the spring of 2015, when plans to use OBOT for coal were first revealed. On Friday, they received a sign that their efforts might pay off when Oakland City staff released a report finding that the use of the terminal for coal exports would negatively impact the health, safety and general welfare of Oakland residents and recommending that the City Council pass both the ordinance and the resolution applying it to OBOT.

Furthermore, staff concluded that the city had legal authority to ban the export of coal through Oakland. (The original agreement between CCIG and the City of Oakland did not specify which commodities would be shipped through the terminal and prohibited modifications based on new laws. However, it included a caveat allowing for any modification that might be necessary to protect local health and safety).

The staff report itself was based in large part on a city-commissioned study on the impacts of the terminal prepared by Environmental Science Associates, that underscored the public health, safety and environmental impacts of transporting, storing and handling coal at the proposed shipping terminal. These include increased exposure to particulate pollution in communities already overburdened by pollutants, health and safety risks related to the spontaneous combustion of coal and increased global CO2 emissions associated with the burning of exported coal in power plants overseas.

The environmental consultancy's report reinforced findings from two additional studies, one commissioned by city council member Daniel Kalb, released just a day earlier and a second by the Public Health Panel on Coal in Oakland.

Kalb was optimistic going into the city council meeting. "I'm confident we will take action that will protect the public health and minimize safety risks," he said, speaking with Earth Island Journal by phone before the meeting. "I think there is plenty of analysis to suggest it is a serious health risk to a lot of people, especially workers and there are substantial safety risks."

The Oakland coal issue has spurred action far beyond city limits as well. In February, California State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, introduced four bills targeting coal exports in California generally and the OBOT site specifically. The State Senate passed two of the bills in June—one that would prohibit the State Transportation Committee from funding coal storage or transportation projects in or adjacent to disadvantaged communities and another that would require additional environmental review of the proposed Oakland project. The two bills are now under consideration by the State Assembly.

Environmental groups have also been focusing on Utah, where pro-coal actors have worked to secure funding for the Oakland project as a means of ensuring export capacity for Utah coal. Specifically, the state has pledged $53 million in taxpayer funds toward a loan for the OBOT project in exchange for shipping rights at the terminal.

The funds were initially provided through a loan by the Utah Community Impact Fund, using money that was supposed to go towards mitigating impacts of mineral extraction in Utah. When that usage of funds was called into question, the Utah legislature approved a bill essentially swapping out those funds for other money to get around the rules.

Last week, Earthjustice, Sierra Club and Heal Utah, among other groups, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior demanding an investigation of the loan on legal and ethical grounds.

"I think some people want to frame this as a story about liberal West Coasters who are worried about climate change in the abstract versus coal miners in Utah," Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney who has been following the Utah developments, said. "This is about Utah and corporations they are working on behalf of, trying to offload the environmental damage to another community, cashing in while someone else suffers."

Throughout the four-hour Monday night city council meeting, many anti-coal activists, as well as council members, made a point of emphasizing that they were not opposing the Oakland Army Base redevelopment project or OBOT more generally, but rather the use of the terminal to export coal.

Prior to the meeting, David Smith, an attorney representing the developer, California Capital Investment Group, told the East Bay Express that they would go to court to challenge a coal ban.

Gregory McConnell, representing CCIG, reiterated this sentiment at the council meeting. Speaking to the city council in reference to a letter the company sent the council earlier in the day, he said "the developer will have no choice but to pursue all legal remedies to protect their interests" if the council voted to ban coal. He suggested that the city could be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars for breaching the development agreement.

"So this is not going to end tonight even if the decision that you make tonight says that you ban coal," McConnell said.

Environmental and community groups, however, praised the decision. "We stand with community groups and commend the City for taking a strong stance against coal and using its powers to protect its residents," Irene Gutierrez, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement.

"We are totally delighted everybody came through that was there tonight," said Margaret Rossoff of No Coal in Oakland campaign, a grassroots organization campaigning to stop coal from being by rail through Oakland, right before joining a celebration with friends following the vote.

Both the ordinance and the resolution passed by 7 to 0 vote—one council member was excused from the meeting. The council will hold a second reading of the ordinance on July 19.

Zoe Loftus-Farren is associate editor of Earth Island Journal. Her writing has appeared in Alternet, Salon.com and Truthout, among other outlets. She has also worked as an environmental lawyer.

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Coal exports in the U.S. have nearly tripled since 2005, according to new data from the U.S. Energy and Information Administration.

Export volumes set a monthly record in March 2013, before declining in the second half of the year.

Domestic coal consumption is continuing to shrink in the U.S., where a combination of low natural gas prices, tightening environmental regulations and the falling price of renewable energy generation are pushing utilities away from conventional coal plants.

As a result, coal producers in the U.S. are looking abroad to find willing buyers.

Coal represents a mere fraction of U.S. energy exports, currently around five percent. Nonetheless, skyrocketing exports constitute a noteworthy trend.

In 2005, the U.S. exported 50 million short tons of coal, while in 2012 it exported 126 million short tons. Half of U.S. coal exports go to Europe, 26 percent are sent to Asia and around 10 percent go to North and South America each.

In Washington, conservative leaders have once again renewed their push to loosen fossil fuel export regulations. Sen. Barrasso (R-WY) representing a major coal-producing state, called Thursday for President Obama to allow more natural gas, coal and oil to be shipped abroad.

Sen. Barrasso and his allies have seemingly spent little time considering the environmental consequences of extracting and exporting even more dirty fossil fuels, instead preferring to emphasize the job-creation benefits of expanding the energy sector.

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL and ENERGY pages for more related news on this topic.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released the result of its investigation into coal leasing practices at the Bureau of Land Management, which confirmed earlier reports that coal companies have taken advantage of a lax bidding process for leasing coal on publicly owned lands, resulting in nearly $30 billion in loss for U.S. taxpayers. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) echoed the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other environmental and community advocacy groups in calling for a temporary suspension of the federal coal leasing program.

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"The Interior lacks rigor and oversight in determining the fair market value of federal coal leases," said Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Peter DeFazio in a joint statement on the report.

"Given the lack of market competition in coal leases, if the fair market value set by Interior is low, it can lead to significant losses for taxpayers. For instance, for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people."

This is the second federal report, after the Inspector General’s report in June of 2013, showed significant financial losses from the troubled coal leasing program.

"For decades coal companies have exploited a flawed and lax federal leasing program to buy coal on public lands for pennies on the dollar, costing the U.S. taxpayer billions and subsidizing dirty, coal-fired power plants that have contributed to health problems and premature deaths for thousands of American," said Bill Corcoran, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

“This independent assessment shows why change must happen in the federal coal leasing program. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the Bureau of Land Management owe it to American taxpayers to suspend the current leasing program until coal companies are paying a fair price for publicly-owned coal.

The GAO report adds to the mounting pressure to reform the federal coal leasing program. However, this report does not address broader problems with the federal coal leasing program such as its role in unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution. In December 2013, a report from the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change recommended that the Department of Interior reform the federal coal leasing program to help implement President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, stating, “BLM should also revisit policies that subsidize fossil fuel development on federal land by increasing royalty rates for federal coal leases, reviewing its procedures for determining “fair market value” during its coal leasing process, and reforming its leasing practices in the Powder River Basin.”

“The GAO report is the latest to highlight flaws with a coal leasing program that is rigged to benefit a handful of coal mining companies like Peabody and Arch, and is yet another reminder of the BLM’s failure to account for the coal industry’s plans to boost exports," said Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Kelly Mitchell.

"But the larger problem is that the BLM is undermining President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by subsidizing the extraction of hundreds of millions of tons of publicly owned coal. Secretary Jewell should put an end to the BLM's coal giveaways and start accounting for the costs of carbon pollution and other damage to the environment when setting royalty rates for the sale of publicly owned coal.”

Beyond lost revenue, selling publicly owned coal at such low rates amounts to a major fossil fuel subsidy, favoring coal at the expense of cleaner forms of energy, said Greenpeace. Between 2011-2012, BLM leased more than 2.1 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin, unlocking nearly 3.5 billion metric tons of CO2. These and other concerns about the federal coal leasing program were detailed in a letter sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on her first day on the job from the leaders of 21 environmental, health and consumer organizations. More than 135,000 have called on Secretary Jewell to establish a moratorium on federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin.

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.

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