By Rachel / Deep Green Resistance Cascadia

In the arid Powder River Basin of Northern Wyoming and Southern Montana, the long roots of sagebrush draw water from deep beneath the soil.  The ability to access water in this way makes sagebrush an important star of the Basin’s biotic constellation.  Species of grasses and herbs are allowed to thrive on the moisture that the sagebrush draws toward the surface.

Elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope access the water stored in the plant’s pale gray, three-pointed leaves.  Greater sage-grouse eat the sagebrush too, while making their nests and performing their complex courtship rituals among the plant’s low branches.  The soil is the basis for the lives of these creatures and countless others, and the precious moisture within the soil is thread that connects them in a web of relationship.

The Powder River Basin’s coal extraction industry doesn’t place the same value on soil, and neither does the government that serves the coal extraction industry.  The region extracts about forty percent of the coal mined in the United States.  More coal is mined annually from the Powder River Basin than is mined annually from the entire Appalachian region.

The industry calls the soil and rock that lies between their extraction equipment and the coal seams ‘overburden,’ and they don’t take kindly to being burdened with the survival of the beings that depend on that soil.  No soil means no sagebrush, and no sagebrush means no sage-grouse.

Though the threat posed to the sage-grouse by human activity is acknowledged by industry and governmental regulatory agencies alike, both have chosen to prioritize the economy over living beings both human and non-human.  Nevada, another state inhabited by sage-grouse, is developing a conservation plan intended to “sufficiently conserve the species while enabling our economy to thrive.”

This, of course, is nonsense.  Since coal is a non-renewable resource at the center of our culture’s one-time energy extraction blowout, the destruction of the land must continue, and the wasting of soil must accelerate, in order to keep the US coal profit machine running.   By definition, coal mining cannot coexist with the greater sage-grouse, and it is time to choose sides.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the listing of sage grouse as a species endangered by human activity was “warranted but precluded,” meaning that the bird needs protection but “other species in bigger trouble must come first.”  Presumably, the “other species” they refer to include the US coal industry – which is definitely in big trouble.  Though coal remains a major source of electricity generation, the combination of band-aid environmental protections and increased competition from cheap natural gas is driving the coal industry’s profits way down from previous levels.  The industry is not taking this decrease in revenue lying down.

The coal industry is looking to boost their profits by tapping into the Pacific market.  Unlike the US coal market, which has lately been flat, the Asian market’s demand for coal is exploding.  China is building at least one new coal-fired power plant every week.  A big obstacle to exploiting this market is a lack of coastal Pacific transport capacity.  To really cash in on Chinese demand, they’ll need more rail lines and expanded West coast ports, and there’s already a plan in the works to get those things in spite of the impact that their construction will have on marine life.

One of the most aggressively pursued port-expansion projects is the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point Washington, home to the Cherry Point herring.  As a keystone species, the herring support a variety of other species that share their habitat.  They provide as much as two thirds of the food supply for Chinook Salmon, who in turn provide as much as two thirds of the food supply for the Puget Sound Orcas.

Unsurprisingly, herring populations have decreased by ninety five percent since the late 1970’s.  Cherry Point is also already home to the largest oil refinery in Washington state.  Vessel traffic in this area is already bloated by a rise in exports and the promise of a new pipeline from Canada.  If this port were expanded as proposed, it would become the largest of its kind in North America.  The expanded port would allow the transport of an additional forty eight million metric tons to foreign markets each year, which would require the use of an additional four hundred and fifty vessels each year – each one containing a devastating spill, just waiting to be unleashed.

Another expansion has been proposed for the Millenium Bulk Terminal at Longview, also in Washington state.  The Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview applied for 5.7 million tons but later admitted to plans for seeking 60 million tons once a permit was granted.  Other ports, including the Port of Grays Harbor in Hoquiam, Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, and Port of St. Helens are also under consideration. Also under consideration is Prince Rupert’s Ridley Island terminal in British Columbia, and other locations in BC may be under similar threat.

Right now, port expansion approval process for Cherry Point and Longview is in the scoping period, which means that hearings are being held for public comment across Oregon and Washington. 

The outcome of these hearings will be used to draft an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and that statement will be used to inform permitting decisions. No doubt, government and industry will again be looking for a false compromise between living communities and extractive industry.  We can stand with the herring, the sage-grouse, and all the members of their extended family, or we can capitulate to the demands of a system with an infinite imperative to destroy the land, air, and sea.

The negative effects of the proposed expansions (not to mention the negative effects of not only transporting fossil fuels, but also mining and burning them) are not limited to the possibility of extinction for the Cherry Point Herring and the damage their absence would do to those species who depend on them.  Coal dust and noise pollution worsen in their effect on both humans and non-humans if this industry gets its way, and both the environmental and economic costs that big-coal externalizes will be forced back onto local communities.

All tactics must be on the table.  We will physically halt construction with our bodies when the time comes, but without a community of support, direct action is likely to fail.  Engagement with the hearing process will also likely fail unless it is accompanied by diverse tactics and practical strategy.  We must use these hearings to connect with others in the communities that stand to be affected, and to send the message  that omnicidal industrial projects like this one will not stand unopposed.

You can find more information about the proposed port expansions here: