Coal dust is the new spotted owl

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Coal dust could be the new spotted owl. Two decades ago environmentalists, seeking to shut down the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest, latched on to the spotted owl as their key to success. Today those seeking to end reliance on carbon-based energy are hoping that coal dust, allegedly spewing from trains hauling Montana and Wyoming coal to Oregon and Washington ports, will be their spotted owl.

The spotted owl strategy worked. Today timber harvests in the Northwest are a small fraction of what they were when the spotted owl was declared endangered in 1990. Had the proponents of owl protection declared their objective to be an end to the Northwest’s timber economy, they could never have succeeded politically. Too many jobs were at stake and too few voters knew the difference between an old-growth forest (vast swaths of which were said to be essential to owl survival) and a well-managed stand of second-growth trees.

The anti-carbon folks face a similar political problem. Despite two decades of apocalyptic warnings of global warming, complete with critical acclaim from Hollywood for former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth,” anything beyond largely symbolic local action has failed politically. So rather than continue to cry wolf to an electorate unconvinced of danger, environmentalists are proclaiming other risks in hopes of triggering government constraints that will have the indirect effect of keeping the carbon in the ground.

Bill McKibben and 350.org have relied on this approach in their anti-Keystone pipeline crusade. If the pipeline is stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border, maybe the Canadians will leave the oil sands of Alberta in the ground. Among themselves, McKibben’s legions talk openly about the looming disaster of climate change and rising sea levels, but their political pitch is to protect against pipeline leaks and the environmental impacts of constructing nearly 1,200 miles of pipeline. In putting the skids on the permitting of the project, President Obama spoke of the need for environmental impact assessments along the route of the pipeline, not about the prospect of rising sea levels and disappearing island nations.

And so it is with the vast reserves of clean coal in Montana and Wyoming. Neither of those states’ legislatures, nor the United States Congress, is going to mandate that the coal stay in the ground. No amount of political horse-trading could produce the necessary votes and, at least in Montana and Wyoming, there are few legislators willing to risk their seats to such job-killing action.

Meanwhile, here in Oregon, newspapers are filled with stories about coal dust from passing trains, life-threatening delays (for emergency vehicles) at rail crossings, the nuisance of as many as 30 coal-laden trains a day heading to our ports, and even the health risks to Oregonians of emissions from coal burned in China. As with the Keystone pipeline, the proposed remedies would create obstacles to coal transport in the name of environmental health and safety, but with the fervent hope that the coal will stay in the ground.

None of these concerns should be scoffed at. But surely coal-dust suppression is not rocket science and the inconvenience of a possible doubling of daily coal train traffic should be weighed against the jobs created in Montana and Wyoming coal fields and at Oregon and Washington ports. Not to mention the benefits of coal-fired electric plants to the health and welfare of tens of millions of Chinese.

In the cases of the spotted owl and Keystone, environmentalists had convenient federal levers to pull (the Endangered Species Act in the former and the need for presidential signoff in the latter). But in the case of coal the appeal has of necessity been local, and not just in Oregon and Washington. A recent trip to Montana revealed that the local papers are filled with similar stories about the hazards of coal dust and increased train traffic. Proposals to restrict coal train traffic are on local government agendas.

And 350.org will be there to rally the troops. In an email announcing plans for “very civil disobedience” in Montana, 350.org declares that “[t]he coal industry poisons everything and everyone it touches from mine communities sickened by runoff, to rail lines that blow 5 pounds of toxic coal dust per mile, to everyone affected by smog, mercury and carbon when it’s burned.” No mention of climate change, the combating of which is their declared mission.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported last month that the owner of a Bozeman company located adjacent to the tracks testified to local authorities that his business experienced no significant effects from the 15 coal trains that now pass by every day. But it’s not clear anyone is listening to those who actually live and work by the tracks, or whose jobs depend on coal mining, transport and use. Like the loggers and mill workers sacrificed to severely curtailed logging in the name of protecting spotted owls (so far unsuccessfully), coal miners, railroad and port employees and the public services made possible by tax revenues from a booming coal industry could matter little in the face of fervent appeals to guard against demon coal dust.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.