Grassroots opposition and Rainforest Action Network prompt Goldman Sachs withdrawal from coal terminal project in Bellingham, WA, 2011-2014

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
February 2011 - January 2014
February
2011
to
January
2014
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Bellingham, WA
Location Description: 
Coastal town in Washington State.
Goals: 
Short-term: weaken the viability of the projected Gateway Pacific Terminal by ousting its major investor Goldman Sachs.

Longer-term: force an end to the coal terminal construction project.

 

In the first decade of the 21st century, demand for coal-based energy in the United States began to decline, leading corporations to emerging coal markets in Europe and Asia. Between 2009 and 2012, coal exports from the United States doubled to 125 million tons. With existing coal export infrastructure at maximum capacity, many corporations proposed constructing new coal export terminals.

In early 2011, the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, signed an agreement with the world’s largest port logistics company, SSA Marine, to construct the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) in Bellingham, WA. The GPT, a coal and bulk cargo port for trans-Pacific vessels, would ship up to 54 million tons of U.S coal to Asian markets.

Immense projects such as this require major financing by banks. Goldman Sachs decided to become the major investor and took a 49% stake in ownership. Goldman Sachs, based in New York City, is one of the premier investment banks in the world. Its decision to back the Gateway Pacific Terminal made it a major target of a campaign waged by the Rainforest Action Network and its allies.

On 28 February 2011, the environmental review process began for the GPT when SSA Marine submitted its application to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County, where Bellingham is located. The first phase involved “scoping,” where the three agencies conducting the review – the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Whatcom County Planning Department - receive public comments and decide what environmental impacts must be considered in the review.

On 30 April 2011, Bellingham held the first public debate on the GPT. SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters emphasized the jobs it would create. Bob Ferris, Director of local environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, warned that the GPT would cause damage to local economy and ecology. Ferris argued that the 280 permanent jobs promised by SSA Marine were not enough to justify the GPT’s construction. Ferris also noted that most of the profits would go to investors like Goldman Sachs, who owned a 49% stake in Carrix, the parent company of SSA Marine.

Less than a week later, on 4 May, RE Sources hosted a public forum about the GPT with the Sierra Club. Over 200 residents, nearly all of whom opposed the GPT, attended the forum where Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike spoke. Residents expressed anger and disappointment when Pike, citing needs for more jobs, remained neutral on the GPT.

On 1 June 2011, Mayor Pike held another community forum to encourage residents to discuss what issues should be involved in the GPT environmental impact review. Rather than suggesting items for the review, many residents stated their total opposition to the construction of the GPT. In contrast to many of the residents, the Central Labor Council of Whatcom County voiced support for the GPT.

Two days after this forum, on 3 June, Mayor Pike altered his position and announced his decision to oppose construction of the GPT, citing resident’s concerns about the heath impacts from coal dust; damage to the waterfront by train traffic; and pollution degrading property values.

On 3 October 2011 RE Sources announced their intent to sue SSA Marine’s GPT proposal for violations of the Clean Water Act, stating the SSA Marine had begun unauthorized clearing of trees on the proposed terminal site. SSA Marine admitted that it should not have begun work before the review and permitting processes were completed.

On 27 October 2011 two economists hired by SSA Marine to assess potential job growth from the GPT project reported 1,200 permanent jobs could be gained – higher than previous estimates.

On 30 November 2011 the organization BankTrack published a report listing Goldman Sachs, a major investor in SSA Marine, as the 11th worst “Climate Killer Bank,” due to their extensive investments in coal infrastructure. On 12 December 2011 RE Sources filed a lawsuit against SSA Marine due to the aforementioned violations of the Clean Water Act. SSA Marine Vice President Watters dismissed the suit as a distraction.

Grassroots opposition picked up steam on 26 January 2012 when activists launched “Coal-Free Bellingham” to petition for a ballot initiative that would prohibit coal trains from traveling in Whatcom County. Some Bellingham residents felt that submitting comments to the environmental review would be more effective than the ballot initiative and launched a website, Project Whatcom, in early February 2012 to encourage participation in the review process.

On 28 February 2012 the Washington Environmental Council delivered to Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark 40,000 signatures petitioning against the GPT and another coal terminal proposed for Longview, WA. On 6 March 2012, the Public Financial Manage Inc., hired by the Communitywise Bellingham organization, released a report stating that the GPT could lead a net loss of jobs for Whatcom County by damaging the county’s tourism and reputation.

In April 2012 the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and the Sierra Club bolstered the findings of BankTrack’s 2011 report by publishing their “2012 Coal Finance Report Card.” Goldman Sachs received an ‘F’ for investments in coal-fired power plants.

On 3 August 2012 a Whatcom County Superior Judge blocked the ballot initiative submitted by Coal-Free Bellingham, stating that the city would not be able to enforce an initiative that banned coal trains given that this nullified state and federal laws and thus superseded the regulatory powers of the County.

Less than three weeks after this ruling, two coal trains in Baltimore derailed on 20 August 2012, killing two college students. Opponents of the GPT cited this incident as further reason to block the GPT.

On 21 September 2012 the indigenous Lummi Nation publicly announced their opposition to the GPT and held a ceremony on a beach near the proposed industrial site.

Three days later, on 24 September 2012, the public comment period for the GPT’s environmental review process began. In the first public meeting, on 27 October 2012, over 90% of speakers expressed opposition to the GPT.

A month later, on 27 November 2012, the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce delivered 10,000 signatures in favor of the GPT to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws.

Supporters of the GPT responded by showing up early for the second public meeting, 29 November, and taking most of the 100 available speaker slots. By the time the public meeting started a majority of the 1000 attendees were present and wearing red “Power Past Coal” shirts to protest the GPT.

The conflict between supporters and protesters was reflected in the third public meeting on 13 December, where 2000 attended.

During the meeting, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn asked the Army Corps to evaluate impacts from coal trains.

Less than two weeks later, at the fourth public hearing on 21 December 2012, 200 people showed up and once again the red “Power Past Coal” shirts outnumbered supporters of the GPT.

The public comment period on issues to be studied by the environmental review ended on 22 January 2013 and the Bellingham Herald reported that citizens had submitted an unprecedented number of comments. On 6 February 2013 the review agencies announced that 124,000 comments had been submitted during the 121-day period. Government agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency asked in their comments for extensive review of community and environmental impacts.

10 days later ex-Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer declared the GPT “dead” due to public opposition.

In early spring the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) released its “2013 Coal Finance Report Card,” which included a profile of the grassroots resistance to the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

RAN gave Goldman Sachs a ‘D’ for investments in coal.

In July 2013 Goldman Sachs published its own investment report on fossil fuels, in which it predicted use of thermal coal to decline. This publication followed a Goldman Sachs report in May predicting drops in Chinese demand for coal.

RAN, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace hailed the report as an admission that investments in fossil fuels are unsustainable and economically unsound.

From that point the news for Goldman Sachs and the GPT became largely bad. At the end of July Whatcom County announced it would conduct a sweeping review of the GPT’s environmental impacts.

On 2 August 2013, the Lummi Nation used its treaty power in notifying the U.S Army Corps of their “unconditional and unequivocal opposition.” to the GPT. The Lummi Nation followed up on 27 September by marching with a totem pole through Bellingham and holding ceremonies near the industrial site.

Since Whatcom County Council must approve final permits, the GPT became a major issue in the November Council elections. Opponents of the GPT won sufficiently to take the majority of the Council seats.

On 2 January 2014, opponents of GPT scored another victory when a federal judge ruled that Sierra Club’s and RE Sources’ lawsuit against BNSF Railways Co. should move forward, despite corporate attorneys arguing for a dismissal.

On 6 January 2014, Goldman Sachs announced it would drop all asset investments in Carrix, the parent company of SSA Marine.

This reversal by Goldman Sachs was a major victory for both the opponents of the GPT seeking to undermine the economic justification for the project and for RAN, who had been deploying research for years in attempt to push banks out of fossil fuel investments.

Building on the momentum of this victory, RAN and Bellingham residents have at this writing (7 March 2013) continued the fight against the railway terminal in Washington State.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Six coal export terminals had been proposed around the same time and three had already been cancelled by the end of this campaign.

Sources: 
http://ran.org/goldman-sachs-sacks-coal-terminal-investment

http://www.ssamarine.com/01072014.html

BankTrack. "Bankrolling Climate Change." BackTrack.org. N.p., 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.banktrack.org/show/news/bankrolling_climate_change>.

Gallagher, Dave. "Lummi Nation Leaders come out against Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal Project." The Bellingham Herald. N.p., 21 September 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2012/09/21/2700524/lummi-nation-leaders-come-out.html>.

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Stark, John. "Economist: Cargo Terminal would bring fewer Construction Jobs, slight more Permanent Ones." The Bellingham Herald. N.p., 13 December 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2011/10/28/2246590/economists-cargo-terminal-would.html>.

Stark, John. "Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point starts permit process." The Bellingham Herald. N.p., 1 March 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2011/03/01/1891340/gateway-pacific-terminal-at-cherry.html >.

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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Guido Girgenti, 09/02/2014