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.