The issue that has dominated environmental discussions in Washington state during the past year is the proposal to create a new shipping terminal in Whatcom County to ship coal and other goods to the Pacific Rim. The emotional debate has led to a number of strange arguments and ironies. Here are a few that stick out.
Groups With a Strong Financial Interest Attacking Others for Having a Financial Interest
One of the common attacks used against supporters of shipping coal from the terminal is that they are putting financial gain ahead of sound policy. Ironically, many of the groups opposing the terminal have the same interest.
For example, the environmental blog Grist recently attacked some consultants with ties to the environmental community who are now supporting the coal terminal. That same day, however, Grist sent an e-mail solicitation for one of its sponsors, a solar panel company, to its list. Despite the fact that solar panels are the least effective form of renewable energy with a lower environmental benefit per dollar than wind, biomass or geothermal, Grist is a strong advocate for this type of energy.
Why would it advocate the least-effective form of renewable energy? There is certainly a great deal of mythology about solar power influencing their thinking. Grist and other greens cite this mythology to claim their motives are pure. But what is the chance Grist will be honest about the weaknesses of solar power when they are so financially dependent on advertising from solar power companies?
Similarly, the board of Climate Solutions includes industry members whose business model relies on high energy costs, like those who retrofit homes and businesses. Demonizing low-cost energy sources helps create the very business climate they profit from.
Both Grist and Climate Solutions will claim their motives are pure. So, however, do the advocates of the shipping terminal. Good jobs and a strong economy are things everyone should want. Opponents like to overlook their own financial motives and point out that the kettle is black.
Ignoring the Big Issue
A couple weeks ago, KUOW held a debate on the issue at Town Hall in Seattle. What stood out was the fact that what dominated the debate was not the discussion of whether shipping coal to China would create a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions. The 90 minute discussion instead focused on ancillary issues, such as transportation concerns, coal dust and the like. These are certainly things that need to be addressed, but nobody believes that the Sierra Club or Climate Solutions will favor the project if the transportation issues are solved.
Indeed, those groups say nothing about trains, and the potential traffic problems they might create, carrying biofuel feedstocks from Canada to Washington state. Their concerns about traffic seem to vanish if the cargo is considered "green."
I am not convinced that without these coal shipments that China would not find plenty of coal to substitute. If this is true, then there would be no net reduction of CO2 emissions by blocking shipments. I must admit that I am still considering this argument, but if the answer to this question is that there is no net gain of CO2, other environmental impacts are really secondary.
Finally, there are the silly claims made by opponents of the terminal. One opponent worried that coal would fall from the train and that it was a dangerous substance. This from people living near cities named Black Diamond and Newcastle.
Another opponent worried shipping coal through Washington state would cause them to breathe more CO2 which they argued is a dangerous pollutant. Of course the CO2 created by coal would be emitted in China and the environmental impact of CO2 is not from breathing it.
These arguments don't get corrected (and at worst are cultivated) because they serve a purpose. Science is sacrificed to politics.
Environmental politics in Washington state have, for too long, focused on the feel good and the trivial. Much of the debate over coal and the export terminal is following that same path.