In a joint letter sent Monday to the President's Council on Environmental Quality, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called on the federal government to examine the consequences on global air quality if five coal export terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon ship up to 140 million tons of coal a year from Montana and Wyoming's Powder River basin to hungry markets in Asia.
Given that coal exports from the Northwest could result in 240 million tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions, the Democratic governors wrote, "it is hard to conceive that the federal government would ignore the inevitable consequences of coal leasing and coal export."
"We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future," they wrote.
The governors said that the U.S. is poised to become a significant supplier of coal to Asia, and they noted that coal is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. They worried that increase greenhouse gas emissions from burning of coal are causing environmental and health costs in the U.S. and around the world.
Kitzhaber has previously asked federal officials to study the environmental impacts of mining coal in Montana and Wyoming, shipping it to the West Coast and burning it in Asia.
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat whom Inslee replaced in January, had declined to take a position on coal exports, saying she wanted the regulatory process to play out.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing three projects, including one in Oregon at Port of Morrow in Boardman, and two in Washington in Longview and north of Bellingham. No final decisions have been made on related state permits for these terminals, the governors noted in their letter.
Proponents of the projects say they will create jobs and generate millions in tax revenues.
Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, which includes U.S. coal producers, noted that the U.S. Senate voted last week to oppose new requirements that federal agencies consider greenhouse gas emissions in their analysis under federal environmental law.
"This requirement would be particularly damaging in the Northwest where trade and export are vital to the economy and support good family-wage jobs," she said.
Project opponents want regulators to study the broader effects of the projects, including increased train traffic, carbon emissions from burning coal overseas and other health and environmental concerns.
"Coal export would harm our air, water, and climate so it makes sense to evaluate the impacts," Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper said in a statement Monday.