Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trade deficit coal trains through Bellingham

Money flows out of the US to China and other countries while manufactured goods flow in. Then much of that money comes back into the US as China and others invest in our debts.

Can we ever pay China back? Can we ever pay with real goods and services that they can use?

Seems like a tall order, but there may be a time when we export more things to China and other nations. Some manufacturing can migrate back to the US. We do have quite a few raw materials and farm products.

Coal is one of the commodities that USA has and China needs, though it isn't a real expensive item. Are we becoming more like a third world country where raw materials are the main export? Have we painted ourselves into an economic corner where dubious compromises have to be made?

USA has lots of coal and some of that coal comes through Bellingham. Thus the coal trains now rumbling along our waterfront.

As to be expected, these trains are controversial. I'll admit, the trains don't make that much difference to me. What's a few more trains coming through town? Sometimes it's even fun to watch them. I don't have to commute across the tracks very often so it doesn't make much difference to me, but lots of Bellingham is worried. As usual, there is the NIMBY (we don't want this in our backyards) reaction as well as other concerns.

Biggest concern, of course, is global warming. All those tons of carbon going into the atmosphere.

Part of the reason why there's controversy is plans for a new cargo facility at Cherry Point; the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed by an outfit called SSA Marine. It would be a bulk shipment facility for both coal and other goods such as agricultural commodities. With that terminal shipment capacity could increase significantly.

Currently, the coal trains are headed into Canada, to a coal shipment point called Westshore Terminal which is located near Tsawwassen, BC. That's just north of the border.

If Gateway Pacific is built, it would be on this side of the border, in USA, so the export wouldn't have to involve Canada. It could possibly mean more trains through Bellingham.

Does Bellingham get any benefit from this?

Jobs in construction and a few permanent jobs running the terminal. Some benefit, but nothing real dramatic. No wonder some people are upset. Bellingham is just a tiny part of the bigger picture. USA has been called "the Saudi Arabia of coal." Asia needs it and we're just along the way.

Both our current mayor, and other candidates for mayor (there's an election coming up) have concerns. One of the big questions is, "what effect does rail traffic have on the redevelopment plans for Bellingham's central waterfront?" That's the place where Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill once resided. The railroad cuts right through that property.

I'm reminded of plans that BNSF Railroad floated back in the last days of the pulp mill. The plan was to move the railroad. Move it to around the periphery of the mill rather than going right through the yard with forklifts, roads and other mill commerce zipping back and forth across the tracks. Plans called (if I remember correctly) to move the mainline closer to the bluff where some switch tracks are now, rather than going through the "gut" of the mill.

Right about then, Georgia Pacific closed. It closed for various reasons including rising electricity costs.

When discussing that rerouting plan with some of my friends in a local sauna (where city planning issues are often discussed), I remember someone's comment about moving the railroad around a closed mill.

He said, "no need to go around a ghost town."

Yes, part of the hollowing out of industry in America means things like pulp mills are closing. GP is replaced with a ghost town for now, but there is a lot of talk about redevelopment for that piece of the central waterfront where GP was. Moving the railroad to more of the periphery might help those plans. Is the railroad still interested? Could the increased traffic possibly expedite those plans?

If the railroad was closer to the bluff, it would be easier to build overpasses across the tracks. Possibly even something like a snow shield or sound barrier. Of course those condo owners, right on top of that bluff, might object. Are Americans spoiled?

Still, most of these issues seem fairly minor. The biggest worry isn't really about Bellingham. It's the concern about global warming.

As far as I'm concerned, more trains aren't necessarily a problem. More exports from USA are good. Things like farm products, for instance which is part of the Gateway Terminal plan, but the vast amount of coal being burned in various parts of the world is worrisome.

Even in China, new technologies such as solar power are being developed, but can it happen fast enough? That's a challenging question, especially now that there is increased worry over nuclear power. Nuclear still could be part of the cleaner energy spectrum. Figuring out technologies that use less energy, like happens in the electronics world can help. Also changing cultural attitudes can help, like more bicycling and public transit. Hopefully the world, including USA, can find alternatives to the continuing increase in use of fossil fuels. Either that or maybe finding a way to sequester the carbon? That's a different story.

Picture, nude bike ride protesting fossil fuel happens, by coincidence, to be crossing over a coal train.

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