U.S. eyes military bases for coal, gas exports

Matthew Brown
The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Trump administration is considering using West Coast military bases or other federal properties as transit points for shipments of U.S. coal and natural gas to Asia, as officials seek to bolster the domestic energy industry and circumvent environmental opposition to fossil fuel exports.

The proposal was described to The Associated Press by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and two Republican lawmakers.

It would advance the administration’s agenda of establishing American “energy dominance” on the world stage and underscores a willingness to intervene in markets to make that happen. It’s also tantamount to an end-run around West Coast officials who have rejected private-sector efforts to build new coal ports in their states.

A Democratic senator from Oregon and environmentalists blasted the proposal as undercutting local communities opposed to fossil fuel exports.

National security: In an interview with The Associated Press, Zinke cast it as a matter of national security to ensure U.S. allies have access to affordable fuels. The Trump administration also has cited national security as justification for keeping domestic coal-burning power plants online to prevent disruptions of electricity supplies.

It’s unclear which sites are under consideration other than one in Alaska. Experts said the possibilities are constrained by the need for a deep water port.

Zinke said the administration is interested in partnering with private entities to ship coal or liquefied natural gas through naval installations or other federal facilities. He added it’s still early in the process.

“I respect the state of Washington and Oregon and California,” Zinke said. “But also, it’s in our interest for national security and our allies to make sure that they have access to affordable energy commodities.”

Accomplishing that, he said, may require the use of “some of our naval facilities, some of our federal facilities on the West Coast.”

Alaska export hub: Zinke specified only one site that could serve as an export hub, for natural gas: the former Adak Naval Air Facility in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which he suggested could receive fuel by barge from the North Slope. The base closed in 1997 and has been largely abandoned. Roughly 300 people live in the town of Adak, the westernmost community in the U.S.

Zinke did not reveal government properties that could serve as potential coal ports.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said the Trump administration was “disregarding the realities around climate change” and “trampling on local communities” that have rejected prior port proposals.

“The federal government should be doing more to invest in clean, renewable energy, not threatening the health and safety of Oregonians by propping up dirty energy investors,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

Groups including the Sierra Club and Northern Plains Resource Council also voiced opposition.

“The military is not a roving force to do whatever Trump finds politically expedient,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for opponents of a stalled coal port in Washington state.

Potential lifeline: Exports have been held up as a lifeline for struggling domestic coal miners since demand for the fuel started to wane a decade ago, when many power plants switched to cheaper, cleaner fuels. The West Coast offers the most economical route for shipments to Asia because of its relative proximity to the largest coal-producing region in the U.S.: the Powder River Basin, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border.

Any export site would need access to deep waters to accommodate large ships and enough land to store fuel awaiting shipment. Few such locations can be found on the West Coast, said Joe Aldina, a coal industry analyst with S&P Global Platts Analytics.

With the U.S. coal export market booming in recent months, Aldina said any new port established by the government would quickly fill with coal for shipment overseas. Yet with demand expected to fall over the long-term, particularly in Europe, the current high prices for coal are expected to drop.

Aldina expressed skepticism that government intervention could make much difference.

“Like everything else the Trump administration has tried to do, it’s a long shot whether some of these things will work, and it’s questionable whether they will really help the market,” he said, adding prices and fuel quality are the main drivers of coal markets, not government policies.