Washington state blamed for holding up fossil fuel exports

Republican lawmakers from Western states and industry executives on Thursday accused Washington state officials of unfairly blocking fossil fuel projects and dictating winners and losers among U.S. companies seeking to export products to Asia.

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and others singled out Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, for blocking increased coal exports from Wyoming and Montana, the nation's top coal-producing region.

U.S. coal mining contracted sharply over the past decade as natural gas and renewables captured a larger share of the electricity-generation market. Companies seeking to pivot to customers in Asia have been frustrated by the cancellation and blockage of proposed coal export terminals on the West Coast.

Under Inslee, Washington state regulators have blocked a coal export terminal in Longview that could export up to 44 million tons annually and an oil-by-rail facility that would transfer oil from the Northern Plains to barges for shipment to West Coast refineries.

"The state of Washington is a barrier in the way of getting Montana resources exported around the world, including to Asia," Daines said during an energy conference in Billings he helped organize.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso predicted during the conference that Washington's attempt to "weaponize the regulatory process" by blocking permits for fossil fuel projects would have consequences in upcoming elections.

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee declined to respond directly to the lawmakers' comments. She said Washington officials were confident the state will prevail in pending lawsuits over the Longview terminal.

"Any proposal for a project like this goes through a rigorous but objective environmental review process," Lee said. "We feel confident that our lead agency is making sound decisions based on the science, as they should. Some projects meet the requirements, some don't."

In denying permits for the Longview terminal, the Washington Department of Ecology said there were too many major harmful impacts including air pollution, rail safety and vehicle traffic.

BNSF Railway Chairman Matt Rose and mining company president Everett King with Lighthouse Resources, which is sponsoring the Longview coal terminal, also criticized obstruction from Washington state. They said the targeting of fossil fuel exports would undermine attempts under the administration of President Donald Trump to achieve U.S. energy dominance on the global stage.

U.S. coal exports to Asia more than doubled in 2017, to about 33 million short tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, most of that coal was funneled through two cities on the East Coast, Norfolk, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, with high transportation costs a barrier to further growth in exports.

West Coast ports provide a potentially shorter route for the fuel.

Attorneys general from six states including Montana and Wyoming have argued in one of the lawsuits involving the stalled port that the case could impact a range of commodities, including grains and other fuels.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan rejected a bid by Washington state to dismiss the case in a bench ruling issued Wednesday.