Topic: Coal, Oil & Trains (63)

Flash mob for coal meeting

More than 300 people came out Tuesday night to listen to nationally known author and environmentalist Bill McKibben speak against the coal port in Whatcom County and to remind us of the perils of our dependence on fossil fuels. Judging by the standing ovation he received, it is a safe bet there won't be an empty seat in the house at today's meeting at City Hall, and a “flash mob” has been called for today, Wednesday, June 1, at 5:30 p.m. at Shakedown on State Street. (Who would have thought? A “flash mob” in Bellingham!) Such excitement hasn't come to town in quite a while.

Unfortunately, the forces lined up in favor of building a coal port at Cherry Point are formidable. They include the governor, Rick Larsen, the local mayors, port commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce, and labor unions. Did I miss anyone? Probably. Not to mention the more or less unlimited funds of BNSF Railroad, Peabody Coal, and SSA Marine Coal itself. On top of that, the railroads are regulated by the federal government and have traditionally had a great deal of power regarding what they haul. SSA says the Environmental Impact Statement will be for the port facility only, saying essentially, “How the coal gets here is not our problem.” So, given a County Council that would approve a nuclear plant on the Nooksack for $50 and a pair of heifers, and the fact that Cherry Point has been zoned for heavy industry and an additional port facility for more than 30 years… this is starting to look like a done deal. There will be mitigation all over the place and everybody will get a piece of the pie. The pier will be extended for the eel grass and the herring, the coal trains will have lids on them. The ships will flush their ballast into state-of-the-art tanks, and Mr. Peabody's coal train will haul it away.

What remains of this discussion, if it could even be called that, is one of the greatest challenges of modern times: reducing carbon emissions in a global economy… during a recession.

The coal to be shipped is high quality, low-sulfur coal for steel plants in China. Americans use Chinese steel, and lots of it. We ship Boeing 747s to China and that is said to be a good thing, and we drive our cars more than we should, and we live in relative luxury… as we discuss peak oil over a latte at the bookshop. And if we were to abruptly stop using coal to generate power? Here in the land of hydro it is easy to forget how many people depend on coal-fired plants. Cutting off power has serious consequences. So the question becomes: How do we get from where we are to where we need to be, quickly? The answer is clear: invest heavily in new energy technologies, and institute cap-and-trade. These are both economically conservative approaches that should be able to gain some traction, if the far-right ever gets done with its hissy-fit. If we in the U.S. could develop a thriving market in carbon credits, it would have a profound impact all over the world. It's not perfect, but it's a fine start.

In the meantime, 300 retired hippies and their offspring are going to show up for a “flash mob” to try to stop or delay a coal industry facility in Whatcom County. It's probably a lost cause, and the argument isn't without flaws. But you know what? I think I'm going to join them.

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Comments by Readers

Hue Beattie

Jun 02, 2011

twas alot more than 300!


Mark Flanders

Jun 02, 2011

Indeed. I have a panoramic photo I put together and I can count 428 people, so I concede! Still, it IS “more than 300”!


John Servais

Jun 02, 2011

I just added Mark’s nice panorama photo of the Village Green with Bill speaking.


Peggy Borgens

Jun 02, 2011

nice Mark!  I had a great time and it was inspiring.


Craig Mayberry

Jun 03, 2011

It is not going to take a flash mob to stop the project; simple economics will do it in.  Craig Cole, the unions, politicians, the Republican Party, anyone else can stand up and say that this a great project and it is going to happen, but it will not.  This is doomed to failure just like the waterfront and many other ?visionary? projects in Whatcom County.  Just like you cannot violate the laws of gravity, you cannot violate the laws of simple economics.  There is no way this project even comes close to penciling out, just like the waterfront does not pencil out.  Yes, you can build the spreadsheet models that says that it does, but only if you use assumptions that are not close to reality.  It is simply not possible to move enough coal through Bellingham to make the project work and building a new rail line would be so expensive that it would kill the economics upfront.  You already have major coal ports just north and south of us and we offer nothing new or unique.  If there is more demand then those existing ports can easily ramp up production to meet it.  I realize that people still want to believe that the economy is going to come roaring back and when it does, then all of these projects (coal, waterfront, etc) will make economic sense once again.  The economy is not coming back, there is nothing out there that suggests that we will or can return to the economic growth and greatness of the last 30 years.  Government and business institutions have become too large and ineffective and are now a hindrance to the economy.  It is no longer possible to change those institutions and anyone that tries is going to get cremated by them.  We will be in a long, slow economic decline which means projects that might have penciled out 20 years ago will no longer be viable and only small projects will have an economic chance.  Organize the flash mob and we should continue to press on the project, but I doubt we will have to do much.


Mark Flanders

Jun 09, 2011

Craig! Good to read your post. Wow. I’m not sure where to begin. I recall you favor a free-market perspective, so I have to do some serious reading between the lines here, and find myself in the curious position of defending the economic viability of a project I don’t want built, where you are arguing against the economic viability of a project you favor? Further, you’re tossing the coal port and the waterfront into the same bag to argue against…bad business plans? Let’ call the whole thing off, and call it a draw. (smile) All the best, Mark F.

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