Friday, October 21, 2011

Will the Gateway Pacific EIS Be Anything More Than A Big Ol’ Pile of Paper?

Well. Things certainly got lively yesterday on Get Whatcom Planning. The Gateway Pacific project seems to have ratcheted up the level of subdued excitement around here.

In comments on my last blog post, I was accused of thinking that the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for the Gateway Pacific coal terminal will be nothing more than a formality.

This made me think. Thinking requires the processing of information. Which brings to mind a quote attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes[1]:

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

In a couple of public forums, I’ve discussed how the environmental impact assessment process works. I’ve said that the process “can” work well. It can provide a detailed, open, scientific assessment of the impacts of a project, and it can result in better projects.

When the Gateway Pacific project was first announced, I was hopeful that the process would work well. I’ve seen it work well for big projects, so I was optimistic.

On the other hand, the process can lead to nothing more than a big ol’ pile of paper. I’ve seen that happen, too.

So, which will it be for the Gateway Pacific project? At this point, my optimism meter is dialed down low. And here’s why:

(1) If the agencies with authority and expertise don’t require a rigorous, complete analysis, the EIS will literally paper over the impacts of the project.

For me, this is the biggest problem looming for the Gateway Pacific EIS. We’ve seen strong, principled, consistent statements and actions from a few agencies that have reviewed the (legal and environmental) mess that SSA has made out on the Cherry Point site so far, but that has not been the primary response.

For whatever reason – whether it is underfunding and understaffing, or political pressure, or the belief that little old Whatcom County is too obscure and remote to matter – we are not seeing evidence that every agency with jurisdiction over this project will work to safeguard our community and hold SSA to a high standard.

In fact, we’re seeing quite the contrary: an absence of enforcement from some quarters, and lenient enforcement that treats SSA differently from other property owners from others. This hardly instills confidence that these same agencies will conduct a rigorous, arms-length analysis of the impacts of this project.

Now we have a County Executive candidate who has made an election pledge to work with SSA to get the project through, as shown in this video and discussed in that last blog. A culture of cronyism will not ensure that Whatcom County will provide a rigorous, arm’s length analysis of the impacts of the project.

This is new information since my earlier discussions of the EIS process, and its effect has been simple and logical. It changed my mind.

(2) There has to be a level of trust and assurance that the project applicant will actually implement all of the great things that the EIS says that it ought to do.

The point of an EIS is not to write a brilliant EIS. The point is to make sure that the environment is protected. All of those words on paper mean diddly-squat if the protective measures that the EIS comes up with are not implemented.

And so, we need to know that SSA will be competent and honest enough to meet its obligations. Something or other in that equation has been missing so far. Building roads, cutting trees, and filling wetlands illegally is hardly a demonstration of the ability or willingness to stick to commitments or to meet the highest environmental standards.

I heard an SSA spokesperson say, on Radio Real Estate, that all of SSA’s operations around the world meet the highest environmental standards. As SSA’s operations around the world are scrutinized, I hope to find that the evidence supports this assertion. Around here, to be frank, that hasn’t been the case. And that does not provide much assurance that the environmental impact assessment will lead to environmental protection on the ground.

Now I see that labor is fighting against the preparation of a health risk assessment. I have not seen SSA release a statement saying that, to the contrary, it fully intends to ensure that all of the impacts of its projects – including impacts on the health of the community -- are fully evaluated.

That is what I’d expect of an exemplary environmental citizen, and I hope that SSA will step up. In the meantime, evidence that SSA will be a careful steward of our environment is lacking.

(3) An EIS can’t do a darn thing about impacts that nobody can mitigate.

One of the more startling figures relating to the Gateway Pacific Terminal is the number 487. That’s how many enormous coal tankers will be coming to Cherry Point when the project is built out, according to project proponents. (See “3 Things that Everybody Needs to Know About the Gateway Pacific Project at Cherry Point..”)

Marine vessels -- such as these 487 bulk carriers -- are significant sources of air pollution. While at sea, they burn bunker fuel, which is a dirty fuel that comes from the bottom of the oil refinery barrel. Many bulk carriers are registered in “flag of convenience” countries (such as Panama and Liberia). The country of registry, not the United States, is supposed to make sure that the ships burn low-sulfur fuel within 200 miles of our coast.

While on shore, our regional air pollution agency can slap on some fines if they see a really dirty stream come out of the smokestack. SSA can offer electrical power, in lieu of burning diesel, while the ships are at the pier (except that most ships won’t be equipped to plug in). Other than those palliatives, I simply don’t see how the EIS can have any impact on marine vessel pollution.

(Of course, if we have no health impact assessment, we will never understand the cumulative effects of this source of pollution in conjunction with the diesel fuel burned by coal trains. These concerns about this process are synergistic – each amplifies the others.)

I also wonder about the mitigation of impacts from spills. Here’s why I wonder:

“Sometimes it comes as a surprise to people to hear that pollution from ships' bunkers can be nearly as serious a problem as major cargo spills from tankers. . . .

Although only oil tankers can cause very large spills, many bulk carriers and container ships carry bunker fuel of 10,000 tonnes or more – these are larger quantities than many of the world's tankers carry as cargo.

Most importantly, ships' bunkers normally consist of heavy fuel oils, which in general are highly viscous and persistent. A relatively small quantity of highly persistent bunker fuel can be disproportionately damaging and costly to remove in comparison, for example, with a substantial cargo of light crude oil.

Bunker Spill Risk,” 2001.

I haven’t heard the project proponents talking about this issue, and I don’t believe that the EIS can ensure that such a spill never harms our coastal waters. The EIS can’t control the makeup of the fleet or ensure that we only get perfectly trained, alert, competent ships’ captains. If this is a risk that the community decides that it does not want, the EIS will not protect it.

And then there’s the issue of mitigating the impacts of burning more coal in China. Tut tut, they will say, there’s no impact to mitigate. China will burn more coal no matter what. But will it? Does the extent of coal that we supply have no impact at all on demand in China – in other words, is China exempt from the laws of the market? Will the EIS even look at this issue?

This brings us to the last, but surely not the least, concern:

(4) Garbage In, Garbage Out applies to EISs. If the “scope” fails to address the entire project, conclusions about impacts will not represent reality.

Because this project involves transporting coal from Wyoming through many communities (including Bellingham), storing the coal, loading it onto 487 enormous ships each year, transporting it to China, and burning it there, the impacts of all of those steps need to be evaluated.

I’ve heard it said that this “can’t” be done. Why not?

The claim that it “can’t” happen is part of an EIS syndrome that is related to the $500 toilet seat problem. Here’s what I mean.

It’s been observed that people get fixated on small parts of enormous defense contracts. We complain about the $500 spent on a toilet seat while not raising a peep about billions and trillions of dollars going to, say, Halliburton. Why is that?

Because we can understand the toilet seat. We can’t understand the billions and trillions. The enormity of the issue puts it beyond our ken.

Similarly, an EIS tends to be very good at looking at familiar, local impacts. We have baseline data and time-tested methodologies for those. But when the scope is as vast as this project, there’s a tendency to throw up our hands and say “It’s too big! We don’t have the time, the data the ability, the understanding to look at all of the impacts!”

What we can’t measure, we discount.

And so, from an EIS standpoint, you wind up with a project that is just “too big to fail.”

The EIS needs to look at all of the activities included in this project, or else it will be nothing more than a big, expensive pile of paper.

Which is another word for “a formality.”

[1] Although he may not have said it, as I learned from that invaluable research support, Google:


  1. Jean,

    Thoughtful comments. Thanks.

    One thing I've always thought a true EIS should address is the question, "What are the environmental consequences if we do not do whatever is being studied?"

    As an example that is no longer particularly controversial, some years ago I worked on some municipal waste incineration issues.

    An EIS on an incinerator almost always points out that, based on risk assessment, an early death among a population of 100,000 or so might occur once every 50 or 60 years.

    That, of course, leads to hysterical pronouncements that this incinerator will kill us all in time.

    On the other hand, because Whatcom County no longer incinerates garbage, making electricity out of it in the process, we load it all on trains and utilize diesel driven locomotives to haul it to Eastern Washington or Oregon for disposal in landfills that will be there for perhaps hundreds of years.

    A good EIS should address the question, "Is it better to burn the stuff here, reducing it to a stable ash that can be used in building blocks as filler while we're making fossil fuel replacing electricity out of the "waste" or, is it better to have diesel engines pull the stuff hunderds of miles away, out of sight and out of mind, so we can dump it in a hole in the ground to produce methane?

    Anyway, lots of food for thought in your analysis.

  2. Thanks, Jack.

    NEPA does require the consideration of a "no action alternative." Defining "no action" is a continuing challenge and a frequent source of litigation.

    If something predictable is likely to happen on a site if the project is not approved, that "something" usually will be evaluated as the "no action" alternative. The "no action" alternative for the Gateway Pacific site might logically turn out to be development under the existing permit. But it's a bit complicated, because the applicant has not completed the environmental studies required for development under the existing permit. So there's a reasonable question as to whether that's a realistic "no action" alternative.

    Based on their statements that trains will go through Bellingham "no matter what," project proponents may try to claim that exporting coal from Westport is the "no action" alternatives. That will be an interesting issue, in light of the absence of capacity at Westport, and the need to assume that expansion at Westport would not accommodate Canadian coal exports.

    So yes, I'm looking forward to the tussle over the "no action" alternative. It should be a good one.

  3. When you think about it, a "reasonable" mitigation "capable of being accomplished" (to quote the SEPA speak) for the carbon emission of burning would be to provide guaranteed financing (with a margin of safety) for sequestring that amount of carbon, whether by some industrial process or through financing improved farming practices, paying for renewable energy that supplants that amount of carbon emissions, etc. This would definitely be an interesting exercise. How many acres of farmland dedicated to acting as carbon sinks does it take to remove the carbon emitted by burning 50+ million tons of coal a year? Or how many rooftop solar installations?