Saturday, October 29, 2011

How is the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal Like a Cherry Point Herring?

Oh, all right. Really, it’s not.
Cherry Point herring are near the bottom of the marine food chain. They sacrifice their little selves to provide food for charismatic species like salmon and orca whales.

The Gateway Pacific coal terminal, in contrast, is at the top of the food chain. Its major investor is Goldman Sachs and it has a huge coal export contract with Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world.
Some might find these large corporations to be charismatic, but only, I suspect, those who are on the payroll. The rest of us are expected to sacrifice our little selves to engorge their profits even further.

But the coal terminal and the herring do have one thing in common: they’re both slippery and elusive.[1]

Students at Western Washington University held a forum last Wednesday called “Cherry Point: Bellingham and Beyond.” Five people were on the panel, including Craig Cole, the spokesperson for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, Chris Johnson, representing Labor, Jack Delay from Communitywise Bellingham, Bob Ferris from RE Sources, and me, from, well, Get Whatcom Planning.

On behalf of SSA Marine, the coal terminal proponents, Craig Cole kept emphasizing that the terminal might ship all sorts of products – “in past years, potash was the big thing” – and that who knows, really, what that terminal might be used for.

But then, in response to a question from Mayor Pike, he insisted that he knew for a certain fact that we’d have just as many coal trains through Bellingham even if the Cherry Point terminal were not built. Those trains absolutely definitely positively would carry the same amount of coal to Canadian ports.

How can he be so certain about coal trains to Canada, I asked, when he claims not to know what product the Gateway Pacific terminal will ship? And when there aren’t any contracts of that size with Canadian ports, and when there doesn’t appear to be that much port capacity available, especially for American coal. (Read about that here.)

Craig responded that shipment out of Canada is absolutely certain because that’s what “everybody who actually works in the business” (ZING! OWIE! I do not work in the coal export business, it’s true!) says is what will happen.

I think that SSA Marine and the Gateway Pacific supporters need to ask “everybody who actually works in the business” what product will be shipped out of their own terminal.
Since they appear to be uncertain about it.

In fact, a good start might be to contact Peabody Energy. They could probably find the name and address of somebody to talk to on that contract they signed.

[1] Now it’s time for some marine scientist to get all biological on me and to say that herring are not really “slippery.” For all I know, they’re rough and gritty when taken out of the water.
If you want to read more about Cherry Point herring, Bob Simmons recently posted a good article in Crosscut. But in the meantime, let's get on with the metaphor.


  1. I fully intended to post a thoughtful and articulate comment related to this issue, and perhaps I still will at a later point in time, but the first thing I have to say, because it's where I am stuck at the moment, is that: Jean, I think you are awesome. Consider this a fan-club comment. The few times I have seen you speak on this issue I have been so impressed, including at the panel at WWU the other night. I am glad you are doing what you are doing and that you are who you are.

  2. Thank you, CM!

    I had not intended to write this today -- it was nowhere to be seen on my "to-do" list. But I couldn't get my mind off of some comments by students that I talked to after the forum. They were reassured to "know" that Gateway Pacific wasn't going to be a coal terminal.

    I was discouraged that my efforts to convey the facts -- the 24 million ton/year coal contract, the application stating that the project will be 88.888888% dedicated to coal (48 million tons/year coal, 6 million "other" )-- weren't more effective.

    What this demonstrates, I suppose, is something that every teacher knows: that facts and numbers are never as persuasive as a story. I believe that students were responding to a fairy tale about a magical port that will ship 54 million tons per year of potash, grain, and other vaguely pleasant commodities without any harm to the environment. There's no evidence to support this vision, but it presents a prettier picture than a giant coal port.

    So I guess that this is in the nature of a "do-over."

  3. And here's another thing, while I'm thinking about what I wish that I had said:

    If coal terminal opponents are merely "emotional" and "hysterical" about coal --

    then why the effort to create the perception that the Gateway Pacific project won't be a coal terminal?

    Why not stand up proudly for your coal terminal? Why not tell Craig Cole to say "Yes, it's going to be coal, the most wondrous export commodity on earth"?

    Because it's not. That's why.

  4. I know it is really hard to look in the mirror when one is pointing a finger, but doesn't Mr. Cole realize that he is not in this business either? Being a paid lobbyist for SSA Marine does not make one one an expert on ports--it only makes you an expert on what you have been told to say....

  5. so, being an activist for a group at least partially funded, willingly or unwillingly, by the rest of us does make you an expert on ports?

  6. Jack,

    I have a lot of faults (my wife will certainly enumerate, if you wish) but one that does not make the list is failure to do research prior to entering public discourse on a particular topic. Put simply, it is part and parcel of my job to know what I am talking about. As to the funding issue, RE Sources including The RE Store, North Sound Baykeeper and our various advocacy and education programs are non-profits, but with a twist. For one thing we pay property taxes because of our retail operation. Any government monies that we receive are part of open-bid, fee-for-service contracts awarded because we provide high quality services cheaper and the funding is not used for advocacy of legal work (in spite of what Ms. Brooks on KGMI says). We do receive tax-deductible donations from willing people and foundations. That said, we also provide about $1.5 million in cash discounts to challenged sectors of the community each year, remove 5 million pounds of materials from local waste streams (saving individuals and municipalities money), conduct numerous beach and river clean ups, conduct dozens of educational workshops, and provide on-the-job and basic job skills training for hundreds of people each year. In any accounting scenario our organization gives back to the community far, far more than it takes. And you?

  7. I think you've accentuated my point.

    In your first comment you explain that you have done your research so that makes you an expert. You imply Mr. Cole has not done his own research and, is, as a result, is ignorant in terms of the discussion.

    You are overly defensive regarding the work your organization does. I've contributed to ReStore, sometimes shop there and admire some of the things it does. But do you see the sort of self-centered assumption you make? None of the long list of accomplishments you provide have anything to do with your knowledge, or lack of knowledge, regarding ports any more than running a major business, sitting on the boards of large corporations or being a trustee at the University of Washington makes Mr. Cole an expert.

    You simply ask us to assume you know more than Mr. Cole does because you believe yourself to be correct in your approach and, thus, Mr. Cole must be incorrect.

  8. Wow, Jack. Call off the attack dogs, eh?

    At the forum, Bob and I presented facts: that there are no coal export contracts that are anywhere near the size of the Peabody contract with SSA for Cherry Point and that there are no known plans to expand coal terminals in Canada to an extent that would that would accommodate 48 million tons of coal. Especially American coal.

    Craig responded by saying "people in the business know."

    Bob's point was that Craig himself is not in the business, so his knowledge wasn't based on facts, it was based on what he said that other people told him.

    I think that Bob and I both have expertise that allows us to distinguish between verifiable facts and statements about "what people know." Had Craig said "There are X contracts and Y solid plans for terminal expansion," it would have been an entirely different conversation.

    That was Bob's point. And you were the one that muddied with waters with insinuations about RE Sources' funding. In response to that insinuation, Bob was trying to establish facts about RE Sources' various sources of funding so people wouldn't be mislead. I wouldn't call that defensive. It responds to an issue about which there is a lot of misinformation going around. And a lot of folks with motivation to spread it, apparently.

  9. I think too often lately insinuations are used as an attempt to distract people from the real issues. Thanks again to you, Jean, and also to you Bob, for trying to bring clarity and helpful information to the people of this community.

  10. Have you seen whats been reported in coal industry and coal reports lately? The latest coal market news is all about emerging countries are predicting to use large amounts of thermal coal for power generation and coal mining for steel production and they are investing heavily onshore and offshore to secure the coal they need so that they can meet increasing demand for electricity and steel. Cherry of