Fossil Fuels R Us? America and the Northwest can do better

The Center for American Progress kicked off a national discussion on the economic and environmental consequences of fossil fuel exports last week, at an event headlined by Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Ed Markey, and CAP CEO John Podesta.  You can see the whole event and the presentations on the CAP site here.

Senator Wyden and Congressman Markey talked primarily about LNG exports, while the ensuing panel talked about coal export.  I spoke on the panel, along with;

  • Sara Kendall of  the Western Organization of Resource Councils,
  • Brian Lombardazzi of the Bluegreen Alliance, and
  • Tom Sanzillo, the former Deputy Comptroller of the State of New York, who had some choice words  about the scandalously cozy relationship between federal land managers and the coal industry.

CAP Senior Fellow Tom Kenworthy organized the event and moderated the panel.

Markey’s views on fossil fuel export are captured in “Drill here, sell there, pay more”.  Senator Wyden, who will be the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year, says we ought to “call a timeout” on fossil fuel export.  He is developing a framework for evaluating the policy merits of fossil fuel export, focusing on impacts to American consumers, national security, energy security, and environmental impacts.

My presentation focused on the economic futility of coal export, and the threat it poses to the brand and identity of the Northwest as place that reaps economic advantage from innovation, quality of life, and clean energy.  This stark contrast between coal export and the region’s economic identity is obvious on its face in places like Bellingham.    In a terrific NPR story on the coal export battle in Bellingham, community activist Julie Trimingham memorably said:

“It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”

You might think that Longview Washington would be less attached to clean development, and more receptive to coal export.  But even there, the community and its economic development leaders share a vision that that cannot be reconciled with coal export.  The Cowlitz County Economic Development Council has adopted a Strategic Plan called “The Turning Point”, with the following vision statement:

“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”

Coal export would be doubling down on the dirtiest for form of natural resource dependence, embracing the lowest value project, and forever branding itself as a regional backwater.

I ended my presentation with something like:

“So here is our choice.  It’s a choice about economic strategy, and ultimately a choice about what kind of future we intend to build.

Will we stand on the banks of the Columbia River and watch ships leaving America with coal bound for Asia, passing ships coming in from around the world carrying wind turbines and solar panels and flat screen TVs?

In the Pacific Northwest, we have already staked out an economic strategy that capitalizes on our competitive advantages in innovation, quality of life, and a long legacy of leadership in clean energy.

Coal export would be a dramatic reversal of that strategy.  Marketing fossil fuel dependence and accelerating the climate crisis is not our niche; it’s not our “value-add”;  it’s not who we are.  We can do better, and we plan to.”

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