Oregon's rejection of a permit needed to build a coal export terminal sheds light on a growing number of local clashes — the result of a nation that is suddenly awash in fossil fuels but can't consume them all at once.
The feuds are playing out across the country, and they span all types of energy. While national environmental attention has focused on raising awareness of climate change, campaigners are seeing buy-in from a diverse array of constituents who see potentially calamitous effects of hauling crude oil, coal, natural gas and tar sands through their towns.
"I think it's a natural outgrowth of the downsides of the energy boom in the U.S. While consumption is going down, production is going up and that stuff is moving through communities," Ross Hammond, U.S. campaign director with Forest Ethics, told the Washington Examiner. "I wouldn't say that there's some unified approach among the environmental community. I'd say in some way the environmental community is catching up to the impact on communities."
The Oregon Department of State Lands' denial Monday of Ambre Energy's proposal to build a dock to help transport up to 8.8 million tons of coal for export dealt a blow to the industry — there are two other proposed terminals in Washington, though many consider that state's evaultaion process more stringent. Oregon denied the Australian company's permit application for the project, known as Morrow Pacific, because it said creating the dock would harm fisheries vital for local tribes.
Both industry and environmental groups said they viewed the Oregon ruling as indicative of broader trends in energy development.
Karen Harbert, president of the Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the similarities in the battles over coal exports and the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, for example, were clear.
"The parallels between opposition efforts to block coal exports and Keystone are undeniable. Unfortunately, America is becoming known as a place that is not open for business, in part due to extreme efforts to impose a 'BANANA' approach to energy-related economic opportunities — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything," Harbert said in an email.
The pipeline has been in federal administrative limbo for about six years largely because of environmental pressure to nix it, making it difficult for the Obama administration to act. Some labor unions and business groups support the project.
Before blocking the Canada-to-Texas project became symbolic of national efforts to address climate change, opponents had for years highlighted the dangers that carrying the thick, carbon-dense oil sands would pose in the event of a spill. Climate change, at the time, didn't take center stage.
K.C. Golden, policy director with Climate Solutions, said the spread of local opposition is a response to citizens taking ownership of their borders in a new, resource-driven North American economy.
"Most people, alas, don't think about climate in the same way that people think about diesel fuel and traffic and spills in their own community. I think the connection between that and what's happening on a bigger scale on climate is important," Golden told the Examiner. "I think what you're seeing ... is that the climate impacts and the local impacts of fossil fuel commerce are sort of converging in the opposition."
Similar disputes are breaking out over natural gas exports and rail shipments of crude oil — a development spurred by a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom that next year could churn out more oil than at any time since 1972 and has the U.S. awash in cheap natural gas.
On liquefied natural gas export terminals, developers in the Pacific Northwest have had to address concerns from local communities about pipelines that would carry potentially explosive fuel to the coast for export. Environmental opponents on the East Coast have targeted a proposed export terminal in Cove Point, Md., though the bevy of projects floated in Louisiana and Texas have had smoother sailing.
Concerns about the flammability of crude oil coming from the Bakken shale formation in Montana and North Dakota have elicited responses from elected officials and local communities — the Obama administration even sped up a federal rulemaking process last month when it floated draft rules governing crude-by-rail shipments ahead of schedule.
For the coal industry, building West Coast export terminals is key. They want to tap Asian markets as U.S. consumption declines, a result of cheap natural gas and forthcoming environmental regulations.
The industry could send some of it up to British Columbia for export, but environmental campaigners insist Canada will only reserve a sliver of its export capacity for U.S. product. Environmental groups also intend to keep suing developers over Clean Water Act violations, potentially raising the cost of doing business if shippers and producers need to secure special discharge permits for stray coal dust.
Environmental activists said that concern about local effects could amplify some pushback against carbon-intensive fuels.
Generating local opposition was key toward building momentum, said Michael O'Leary, a spokesman with the National Wildlife Federation. He said it started when Columbia Riverkeepers hosted a demonstration against the handful of trains that currently take coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to British Columbia for export.
"Stopping free trade — I mean, we have a heavy lift here," he told the Examiner. "It started first and foremost with this rail [demonstration]. You could literally watch coal dust fly off."
Climate concerns were a natural outgrowth from there, O'Leary said, but he stressed that the local reaction that put everything in motion. He recalled a discussion on Saturday with salmon fishermen that he expected to be more confrontational than it turned out.
"I was ready for a little red versus blue pushback, I was waiting for someone to throw the Al Gore thing in my face. But instead it was the most active and engaged conservation debate," O'Leary said. "This is a pollution issue. This is a big-picture issue."