Bill McKibben was in Seattle for Saturday's Draw the Line demonstrations, held in over two hundred cities and towns across the U.S.A. He was interviewed last Friday on NPR's Morning Edition. When asked why he chose Seattle to draw the line, McKibben thought that stopping the proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest would be crucial in order to cap the steady climb of carbon in Earth's atmosphere and continue to sustain life on the planet. Seattle is located in the center of the U.S. Pacific Northwest coal terminal fight.
There have been a scattering of articles about coal export and the push for Pacific Northwest export terminals, but the many dangers inherent are not adequately addressed in nationwide corporate-controlled mainstream media - if at all. There are 6 coal export terminals proposed for the U.S. Pacific Northwest; 3 have been scrapped, due to overwhelming public opposition and the (supposed) falling market for coal. Yet, as the Chinese market falls, global coal demand increases. Oil demand continues worldwide. If Alaska's oil reserves are tapped, Alaska could be the world's 2nd largest supplier of oil, behind Russia, and ahead of the U.S. lower 48; now the 2nd largest supplier.
What the mainstream media doesn't want the people in the western U.S. and Canada to do is connect the dots. If the proposed terminals are built and/or expanded, mining, drilling, and export will increase for coal, tar sands bitumen and petroleum coke. Would fracked natural gas be next in line? Who knows.
What's happening in the U.S. is one with Canada's issues; it's one big global resource grab in the New "Wild West." All ports are potential export points for coal, bitumen, and petroleum coke (aka petcoke)
, if the Industry can bamboozle the people with myths, and buy elections and elected officials. Chinese, Korean, and other foreign investors are gobbling up U.S. and Canadian non-renewable resources; it's a sellout of epic proportions to the richest bidders.
British Columbia's fight parallels the U.S. Northwest's, and there have already been plenty of problems in BC. Out of 16 proposed oil and coal terminals and pipelines in North America, 11 are in Canada; many of them concentrated on the environmentally fragile coast of British Columbia and Yukon Territories, near Arctic waters. Just last December, the Cape Apricot hit the Westshore Terminal
near Vancouver, BC and destroyed a good chunk of one of two loading docks. An undisclosed amount of coal and coal dust were dumped into the Salish Sea. Some findings have indicated that coal terminals routinely dump coal dust and even their excess coal into the ocean, as did this one in Prince Rupert
; in some of the most pristine waters and wilderness country of the Canada coast. With world demand of coal increasing, and with strong U.S. resistance to the Pacific Northwest coal terminals, Canada will be pressured to build and expand more, if not in southern B.C, then in Yukon Territories; just as in the U.S., Alaska is being eyed for exploitation, and expansion of fossil-fuel-raping infrastructure.
BP has a petcoke refinery close to the Cherry Point terminal near Bellingham, WA. Petcoke is the dirtiest fuel of all - even dirtier than tar sands bitumen. For the above-mentioned and for other reasons, the Cherry Point terminal, visible from the San Juan Islands and called the "Gateway Pacific" Terminal by the coal industry, is potentially the most dangerous of those proposed in the U.S. If Cherry Point is expanded according to plan, it will be North America's largest coal terminal, in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the U.S. Cherry Point is also uncomfortably close to Westshore, which is also slated for expansion to be the main Canadian west coast coal export terminal. Conveniently for the Industry, there is a Westridge oil terminal and refinery near Burnaby, close to Westshore coal terminal. This example is only a microcosm of the bigger picture, but a crucial one.
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Capesize ships, the carrier ship of choice for coal and bitumen export to Asia, are the largest single-hulled ships in the world. The newest capesize ships, class ULCC, is 1245 feet long with a beam of 223 feet. Capesize ships are particularly vulnerable to accidents, spills, and leaks in these ways:
1) It takes 7 miles to stop one of these ships; the implications of both stopping and maneuvering in inland waters and narrow passes are frightening.
2) They will be carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of dirty bitumen bunker fuel as well as whatever cargo; coal, oil, petcoke; ecologically catastrophic if spilled anywhere.
3) The bilge water carried back from China and warmer waters will likely contain invasive species and plants. Some waters in the Pacific Northwest and Canada are already seeing invasive species infiltration affecting salmon. The results could be disastrous to the food chain and to orca whales.
4) The coal on capesize ships can't be covered because it could ignite and/or explode. This means that with normally high winds, the Pacific coast will suffer coal dust in the ocean and Inland seas, especially near the coast terminals, with the strongest onshore winds. Science has shown that even a teaspooon of coal dust can increase ocean acidity and negatively impact marine life.
5) If there is a spill from one of these ships, it could devastate all affected fishing and tourist economies, which create far more long-term jobs than the coal and oil industries; especially along the coasts. Depending on the severity of the spill, economic viability of all of these places could be ruined, ecology destroyed and the food chain devastated.
6) The proposed route goes through narrow Unimak Pass in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, an environmentally sensitive ecosystem and one of the most difficult to navigate with big ships. Ironically, it's one of the places with highest tanker traffic because profiteers are waiting for new inroads through the melting Arctic ice, which would provide a faster and cheaper tanker route to Asia.
The much shorter Northern Pacific route to Asia will save the Industries a lot of time and money - as long as there is no oil, coal, or bitumen spill, collision, explosion, or leak of any kind. Considering the track record and cover-ups of the fossil fuel industries, plus the inherent dangers in the route itself, these scenarios, or worse, are likely; it's only a matter of time. Who would pay for cleanup, if it's even possible? Has economic devastation been considered along with environmental devastation in the event of a spill in inland waters? The taxpayers would be left holding the bag in every way.
Capesize ships are nothing new to the East Coast, where there is more long-time tolerance and support for coal mining, oil refining, and export of non renewable resources. Since the infrastructure is so firmly in place back East, the fight will be harder there. Here's an old article from 2011; the picture speaks for itself. The waters around the Hamptons are wide and open, compared to the Pacific coast of the U.S. and British Columbia, where the terminals will be. There are myriad salmon streams and inland waterways all along that coast. There were oil tankers on the Delaware River, near where I was born and raised, but nothing as huge as these capesize ships. If they carry petcoke and unrefined bitumen from Keystone XL and other projects, nobody knows if the pipelines will hold up, let alone the ships. These unrefined fuels are extremely corrosive.
Bill McKibben's organization, 350.org, was named so because more than 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon threatens sustainability of life on earth as we know it. His goal was to keep our carbon emissions under 350ppm. We are up to 400ppm and climbing at least 2ppm per year, which may turn out to be a conservative estimate.
There are many more parts of the coal story to be told in depth: Potential treaty violations and threats anew to First Nations' way of life, the many towns affected by coal trains and coastal terminals, the myth of coal jobs
(economic and environmental loss will be to Nth power Squared in all communities impacted by coal mining and export, and the Industry doesn't want people to know), the destruction of boreal forest, wetland and marine devastation that's already happened and is certain to continue, tanker accidents and oil spill risks, fugitive coal dust, petcoke and bitumen export, dirty elections, jobs to be outsourced, severe health impacts, and more.