Inslee politicizes process for export project – to Longview’s detriment

Any large project in Washington must go through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. In the main, that’s a good thing. An EIS is how we spot environmental problems that could arise and identify how to mitigate those problems.

That’s the theory, and for a long time, that’s been the practice in our state. But the Inslee administration is quietly-but-profoundly changing the EIS process in ways that could hurt our job growth without providing much in the way of tangible benefits.

The problem came into focus last week, when Inslee’s Dept. of Ecology issued its EIS on the Millennium Bulk Terminal project in Longview. It’s an area that could really use the 3,000 permanent jobs the project would create, but Millennium couldn’t survive the new “global” EIS process.

That’s because one of the products that would be exported through the Longview terminal is American coal. Jay Inslee doesn’t like coal, but the usual EIS process would have made it difficult for him to stop the project.

So, he changed the rules.

What’s an EIS for?
The EIS process, as it existed for decades, was for identifying local impacts from projects. One much-ballyhooed potential impact from bulk commodity terminals (BCT) and the coal trains travelling to them is coal dust. The Millennium EIS, after much study, found no concerns regarding coal dust. It wasn’t an issue.

No, the Longview project didn’t run into trouble because of local impacts. It’s all because the coal sent through Longview – just one of the products Millennium could handle – would be sent to the other side of the world and burned in power plants. Millennium wasn’t just asked to ensure its operations were safe for our local environment, it had to account for the end use of the products shipped through it.

That’s a mighty big shift in EIS policy, one that raises problems that go far beyond this specific project or the topic of coal generally. You could be coal’s biggest opponent and still question the wisdom of these greatly-expanded global EIS processes.

Who’s next?
If BCTs can be denied permits because of global impacts, what industries can expect to be in the crosshairs next? If Boeing wanted to build or expand a factory here, should the state deny it permits because planes fly around the globe burning fuel?

It sounds absurd. Boeing has long historical roots here. It’s politically connected. It employs thousands at good wages.

By why shouldn’t the logic of “global impacts” be extended to Boeing and many other good employers? When you open up this Pandora’s Box, you’re asking for such trouble. It’s true, a company like Boeing is probably safe – for now. But we’re setting a precedent that can be used to expand this job-killing process to just about anyone.

And isn’t the fact that we’re all confident that this process won’t be turned on a historic Washington company like Boeing anytime soon proof that the process is, at base, arbitrary and political? The Longview Daily News editorialized, “From the start of the permitting process, the state Department of Ecology was against the Millennium project. Anytime it takes five years to get a final environmental impact statement completed it’s pretty clear the state dragged its feet at every turn.”

Boring old “regulatory certainty” is actually pretty important
We’re supposed to have a government of laws, not men. Is that what a global EIS process provides? Despite a gloss of science, this is essentially the governor and his agency saying, “We don’t like one product that will be shipped through here, so the project is denied.”

We know how this story ends. Government doesn’t gain a new power and say, “OK, just this once.” The list of “disapproved” products will grow and grow. More companies that want to add jobs in Washington will have to justify impacts anywhere beyond our borders.

There are so many questions about power and influence in the nebulous global EIS process. Who decides how global impacts are assessed, and which impacts count? How will companies know what is expected of them? Will some favored industries receive a pass because they’re politically close to the governor?

When all of these questions and more hinge on who, at that moment, sits in the governor’s chair, that is by definition a process of men and not laws. Some businesses looking to grow in Washington will decide, gosh, there has to be someplace where the rules are more predictable.

The immediate loss here is to Cowlitz County and Longview. They need jobs, but they’re not part of the Seattle tech boom. A spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, Mariana Parks, noted:

“As the most trade-dependent state in the country, where one in three jobs is tied to trade, you would expect a more level-headed approach to the regulatory process. This is purely a political decision, and unfortunately, the people of Southwest Washington are being made to pay for it. We’re talking about nearly 3,000 new jobs that would be created with this project and millions in new annual tax revenue, for schools, roads and public safety.”

What about the long-term impacts? That’s even more troubling.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.