Northern California officials roll out opposition to coal train specter

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“There is just no way in hell that citizens of Sonoma County, with it going through the Eel River Canyon and it being coal, with long trains through the heart of our communities all for an outdated carbon fuel source … I just can’t imagine anyone being supportive of this idea,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, the current chair of the SMART board of directors, said Friday.

SMART had not been contacted by anyone from the company, director Farhad Mansourian said at a Sept. 15 board meeting for the passenger rail line. The North Coast Rail Authority also had never been contacted, its executive director said in a statement.

“This anonymous company claims it has detailed plans for the tracks but has not once contacted NCRA, who owns the right of way, or anyone else with any knowledge of the dilapidated state of the line,” director Mitch Stogner said.

The real fight over the proposal, if indeed there is an actually interested, capable and well-financed entity behind the North Coast Rail Company, is yet to come, Rabbitt said.

“We’re speaking to the choir here. We’re all in agreement and we’re going to write very strongly worded condemnations through resolutions,” Rabbitt said. “How does one actually affect real change on this?” he asked.

Opponents would seek to stop the proposal at the Surface Transportation Board, McGuire said, adding that Huffman was coordinating opposition at the federal level. At the state level, he hoped to cut off one source for possible funding with his bill, he said, which would block California from spending taxpayer dollars on reconstructing the rail line to ship coal or on the construction of a coal export terminal in Humboldt Bay “in perpetuity.”

Though the company claimed it had $1.2 billion in funding in its STB filing, it does not have enough financing to put its expensive shipping proposal into play alone, McGuire said.

“No matter how deep their pockets may be, there is no way a corporation can build this out without a government subsidy,” McGuire said. “They’re going to be looking to the state and the federal government for additional funding.”

As the nation and much of the world continues to move away from coal-fired electricity, a shift driven by climate change concerns and the rise of renewable energy and domestically by cheap natural gas, investors are increasingly shy about backing coal schemes, analysts say. The fact that the shipping project here would take several years at a minimum to get off the ground only adds to the challenge.

“You can’t ignore the fact that coal is not getting bigger in the world, it’s getting smaller,” Rob Godby, an energy economist and dean of the University of Wyoming College of Business, said. Powder River Basin coal companies have sought export routes off the West Coast for a decade, Godby said, but efforts to ship coal from Washington, Oregon and even Oakland have all failed. Meanwhile, exports through Vancouver, Canada have never been large and have slowed over the years.

While Japan, China and South Korea have all continued building coal-fired power plants, they have largely met coal import needs through Indonesian and Australian mines. The competition, and the longer distances coal shipped from the United States must travel, have made for volatile markets, Godby said.

“These are very speculative adventures, and if there was a good market case to do this you would see more development than there has been and you would see significant exports out of Vancouver, and you just don’t,” Godby said.

This week, China’s president announced the country would no longer finance the construction of coal plants abroad, though he did not rule out construction at home. Still, for energy market watchers, the announcement was one more significant blow to coal companies’ ability to secure investments.

“Coal companies have increasingly been shunned in financial markets,” Feaster, the analyst with IEEFA, said. Still, he said, “dreams die hard in the coal industry, and the export dream never seems to go away.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

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