Bad Omens for Arch Coal


State officials in Montana and Washington are cracking down on projects that could expand coal production and trade in several Western states. Arch Coal Inc., a St. Louis-based company with a major stake in the expansion, doesn’t seem the least bit daunted--though maybe they should be.

On January 12, the company paid $25 million for a 38 percent share in a massive coal export terminal near the Port of Longview in Cowlitz County, Washington. The facility would ship about 5 million tons of coal to Asian markets each year. (The US currently exports eight times that amount.)

Longview, WA, the proposed site for a coal export terminal.  Courtesy of Flickr user, Sam Beebe.

But only two weeks before Arch made its investment, the state’s Department of Ecology challenged Cowlitz County’s decision to allow the facility. The environmental review, state officials said, didn’t consider the project’s whole carbon footprint--i.e., greenhouse gasses emitted once American coal lands in China’s steel factories.  It’s the second time a coal terminal proposal has met opposition in Washington, after a similar plan at the Port of Tacoma was blocked last year.

If that wasn’t a bad enough omen for Arch, on January 10, a Montana state judge ruled to allow environmental groups to sue the Montana Land Board after board chairman and Governor Brian Schweitzer leased more than a half-billion tons of state-owned coal to the company. The reason for the suit, again, was an alleged lapse in environmental review--the judge found that the lease would turn public property rights private, “before even considering possible environmental consequences.” Combined with private tracts, the Otter Creek lease in Montana’s Powder River Basin allowed Arch access to 1.2 billion tons of coal--more than it takes to power the U.S. for a year.

Perhaps Arch is overconfident, but if the company pulls through the litigation with its new deals intact, Montana’s untapped coal reserves could be bound for China.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.