Billings Gazette: Army Corps rejects shipping port for Crow coal

A proposed Puget Sound shipping terminal for Montana coal is dead after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied it a permit Monday.

Citing the fishing rights of the nearby Lummi Nation, Corps Col. John Buck determined that as currently proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could not be permitted.

Valued at $700 million, the port was to be located near Ferndale, Wash. The Lummi Nation had cited treaty rights in January 2015 when it asked the Army Corps to reject the project.

“Today was a good day for the Constitution and treaties in general,” said Tim Ballew, of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “The federal government through its agencies upheld its decisions that were made in the past.”

The Lummi treaty with the U.S. government recognized that the tribe’s existence evolved around fishing, Ballew said. It granted the Lummi fishing rights in perpetuity. 

The port was advocated by Cloud Peak Energy and the Crow Tribe of Montana. Those port proponents have an agreement for a coal mine on Crow Reservation. The coal was to be shipped from the Pacific Northwest.

The Crow have a right to profit from the coal on their land, said Darrin Old Coyote, tribal chairman. He said the Army Corps killed the coal port before the Crow had a chance to formally make its argument.

Word that the Army Corps would deny the permit began circulating in February after Buck met with U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-MT. Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-MT, had countered that the Crow Tribe had a right to profit from it’s coal and was losing out to the Lummi Nation.“The Gateway Pacific Terminal is incredibly important to Montana, the Crow, and even to the blue collar workers in Washington State because it is literally the gateway to economic prosperity and rising out of poverty,” Zinke said Monday in a prepared statement. “Furthermore, to kill a project before an Environmental Impact Study is completed sets a terrible precedent — as an advocate of conservation, I fear for the future of our lands and resources. It’s a sad day in America when even our Army Corps of Engineers can be wooed by special interests.”

Daines, who advocated for the Army Corps to finish an environmental study of the port and make a decision later this year or in 2017, said Monday that no tribe had ever before been allowed to kill a project before a study was completed.

“The Gateway Pacific Terminal would provide access to international markets for Montana coal and agriculture products — including Crow coal — creating much needed economic prosperity,” Daines siad in a prepared statement. “Once again, the federal government is trampling on Montanans’ livelihoods and I will fight tooth and nail to ensure Montanans have a voice in Montana’s future.”

The Army Corps seemed indicate that the project could be retooled and reproposed. John Marshall, Cloud Peak CEO indicated the port’s partners would regroup.

“We are very disappointed with the Army Corps’ decision today. Supporters worked relentlessly to help stand up to the anti-fossil fuel groups seeking to deny GPT a fair, timely permitting review,” Marshall said. “GPT has been subjected to an unprecedented parallel process imposed by the Corps that served to pick winners and losers among Native American Tribes with differing interests in the project.  We are working closely with our partners, SSA Marine and the Crow Tribe, as well as other stakeholders to review our options in light of the Corps’ decision.”

In 2013, Cloud Peak agreed to lease 1.4 billion short tons of Crow coal adjacent to the company’s Spring Creek Mine in southeast Montana. The deal paid $3.75 million to the Crow in the short term, with a potential $10 million to follow.

Neighboring Spring Creek Mine shipped 18 million tons the year the lease was signed. Coal exports have declined since. Montana mines are currently producing about a million fewer tons a month than they did in 2015.

There is an oversupply coal on the world market that has driven down prices and made exporting Montana coal unprofitable.

Cloud Peak would have been able to ship at least 17 million short tons of coal a year through the Gateway terminal, under its agreement with SSA Marine.