Saturday, March 3, 2012

Coal Terminals in the Northwest (tour update)

A bit over a year ago I did a Google Earth tour of the coal-terminals-in-washington-state to get an idea of the two potential coal terminal sites in the state at Longview and Cherry Point as well as the existing coal terminal just north of the border at Robert's Bank. Since then, the Longview site application was withdrawn but has recently been resubmitted as a bigger facility. No application yet at Cherry Point, but it appears one will be coming very shortly.

Three other Pacific Northwest sites are now being considered in the mix. Lots of interest in exporting coal, but it is unlikely that all the proposed schemes will be operational.

Potential coal shipping terminal sites (USGS)

Coos Bay in Oregon has been added to the mix of potential sites (USGS)

The Port of Saint Helens in Oregon on the lower Columbia River has approved allowing two companies to utilize Port property. The site is just downstream from the Longview site at Port Westward. The site is an existing industrial site with tank farms of fuel and a natural gas power plant. The natural gas arrives via a spur pipeline from the major north-south natural gas line near Interstate 5 crossing the hills on the north side of the river before traversing under the bed of the Columbia River. I worked on this pipe line route back in the early 1990s.

Port Westward and Longview sites on lower Columbia (USGS)

Port Westward site (USGS)

Although approved by the Port of Saint Helens, both projects will still need to go through the permitting process. One of the Port Westward schemes involves off loading coal trains well up river at Port of Morrow and barging the coal down river to Port Westward and then transferring the coal from barges directly into sea-going bulk cargo ships. This scheme would avoid rail passages through the Columbia River gorge, Portland and other communities.  

Port of Morrow (USGS)

Port of Morrow is a few miles north of Oregon's only coal powered electric generation plant operated by Portland General Electric. Portland General Electric is planning on closing the plant by 2020 versus adding the $470 million in upgrades to remove nitrous oxide and sulphur pollution. In a way this plant closure is the very sort of thing that is driving the coal export push. Coal power plants are getting expensive and complicated and are politically unpopular in many parts (not all) of the United States. The Boardman plant was designed to run through 2040, but its air quality problems have caught up to it such that it no longer pencils out for Portland General Electric to continue to use this plant unless they are allowed to continue to violate the Clean Air Act.

Portland General Electric Boardman power plant (Google Earth) 
It does appear that the ground down wind of the coal stockpile has been dusted with coal

Hoquiam/Aberdeen at Grays Harbor is being discussed as a possible coal terminal site. This site has rail access and available vacant industrial land as well as a deep water channel. I had overlooked this as a possible site in last year's post. I stayed in Aberdeen a couple of winters ago for a project and noted how depressed the local economy is, so it should not be a surprise that this site would generate some interest. It has a large area of vacant industrial land at its waterfront, an under utilized shipping terminal and rail access. 

Grays Harbor, Washington (USGS) within the lower drowned valley of the Chehalis River

Vacant industrial land at Aberdeen on right and Hoquiam on left (USGS)

Coos Bay is now in the mix as well. This was a bit of a surprise to me as the rail to Coos Bay had been closed and was in terrible condition. But the Port of Coos Bay has acquired the rail road via a settlement with Southern Pacific Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad which had stopped operating the rail line due to costs. The Port paid $16 million for the line and has acquired funding to upgrade the rail line reopening the line in October 2011. Many of the tunnels through the mountains needed repair and for a time the rail road tracks north of Coos Bay were buried by sand. Lots of money spent for an off-the-beaten-path port access.

Rail from Eugene to Coos Bay (USGS)

Coos Bay (USGS)

Jordan Point site at Coos Bay

The Jordan Point site received approval from the Federal Regulatory Commission for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal with a pipeline connection to the natural gas transmission lines to the east. This approval has been challenged. The LNG import schemes that were a hot issue just a few years ago are no longer penciling out as projects.
Rail line just north of Coos Bay (USGS) The rial line just north of Coos Bay was buried by sand dunes as recently as a four years ago.

Coal companies are being serious about finding a way to sell their coal to China. And bulk shipment is very profitable and easy for the railroads. This is particularly true of the Powder River low BTU coal. What is evident, is the companies are interested in selling as much coal as fast as they can.

Of the sites shown above, I have to think the edge is with the Longview site. That site is already set up for bulk export being located at a now closed aluminum plant and located in an area where bulk export has taken place for many years. It has a circular rail track in place, multiple rail lines heading into the area, a pier and a long term guaranteed federal deep channel.

Cherry Point has the advantage of a deep water port that can handle the biggest ships with no need for dredging. Its downside is it is located at a nearly pristine site which will require the most extensive permitting of all the sites. It also will have significantly more traffic impacts as rail traffic has to negotiate the entire western Washington urban corridor with significant single track stretches.

Coos Bay may have some advantages permit wise having already been through a environmental impact statement process for a similar scale project. The rail traffic issue may play against Coos Bay as the trains would need to pass the length of the lower Willamette Valley.

The Port Westward site will require significant permitting and there will be traffic impacts from the rail traffic through Portland and numerous communities between Portland and the site including communities within the Port of Saint Helens sphere. The barge route avoids the whole traffic impact issue and land site permit issues. However, the rail to barge loading at dry and windy Port of Morrow may be a challenging permit issue particularly since, unlike the piles of coal at the Boardman coal power plant, people live and work in the Port of Morrow vicinity.

Aberdeen/Hoquaim has vacant industrial land and a deep channel. I do not know much about the condition of the rial line in the Chehalis River valley. Despite the apparent attractiveness of the harbor, this harbor has never developed into much of a shipping center with by far most shipping taking place on the Columbia and Puget Sound. That alone hints there are some negatives with the Gray Harbor site.

Then there is the political/policy part of the equation for each of these sites. But that is very another day.


Elizabeth said...

Good posting, Dan.


Anonymous said...

Southern Pacific stopped operating the Coos Bay Line in 1996 and no longer exists. You're talking about the Central Oregon & Pacific (CORP).

Dan McShane said...

Thanks anon. Edited the post to reflect your comment.

Ryan M. Ferris said...


Excellent article. Now let us see a map of known coal deposits in the Pacific Northwest mapped against those potential ports!

Frances said...

I've lived in Coos Bay. Let's just say it's a good place for a bulk coal facility.