The Wall Street Journal | Coal Glut, Environmental Pushback Derail West Coast Port Plans

Once promising, exports to Asia have been undermined by oversupply, demise of port projects

Western coal producers once saw exports to Asia as their future. For many, that dream is fading.

A global glut has flooded overseas markets that were once expected to buy coal produced along a belt stretching from Utah to Montana that includes the Powder River Basin. The industry is also losing long-sought shipping outlets on the West Coast, where local communities have blocked construction of coal terminals amid concerns about climate change and pollution.

Out of seven West Coast export terminals proposed in the past five years—which combined could have handled over 125 million tons of coal annually—not one has opened.

The coal companies’ defeats—under pressure from environmental groups—show the limits of miners’ sway over authorities as cheaper natural gas and tighter emissions standards have slashed demand for the fuel. With three of the four largest U.S. producers in bankruptcy and others hampered by debt, the retrenchment has been swift.

“It looks discouraging,” said Oystein Mathisen, president of Frontier International Shipping Corp., a ship brokerage. Mr. Mathisen is abandoning plans to hire staff and charter more ships to carry coal to China, Japan and Korea. “The lobbying against it is very strong. And politically it’s nothing popular at all.”

Late last month, the city council in Oakland, Calif., gave final approval to a rule blocking coal exports through a new terminal on a decommissioned army base. The future of the $500 million project—backed in part by $53 million of Utah tax revenues—is uncertain, according to a spokesman for the Oakland Global Trade and Logistics Center project.

Arch Coal Inc., the nation’s second-largest coal producer after Peabody Energy Corp., sold a 38% stake in Longview-Wash.-based Millennium Bulk Terminals in June, four years after it had originally hoped to start sending coal from the port. Arch paid $25 million for the stake and received no cash compensation for giving it up, though the company acquired the right to ship coal through the terminal.

Cloud Peak Energy Inc., the country’s No. 3 coal producer, said last month it was exploring “all options,” including a sale of its stake in a planned terminal about 100 miles north of Seattle, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May blocked the project. The Army Corps said the terminal would have infringed on the fishing rights of an American Indian group, the Lummi Nation.

Oregon denied a permit for a coal-export facility on the Columbia River in 2014, and another large terminal in Washington has been under review by the Army Corps for four years.

Environmentalists have cheered the rejections.

“Communities aren’t going to let this stuff get developed in their backyards,” said Cesia Kearns, Western region director of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, which has been fighting against the development of coal terminals on the West Coast.

As China’s growth slowed recently, U.S. producers were undercut by cheaper coal from Australia and Indonesia. Western U.S. exports plunged to 306,714 tons in the first quarter from a peak of 2.7 million tons in the second quarter of 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Miners have struggled to pay debt used to buy billions of dollars in mines that were supposed to feed Asia.

Even with functioning export terminals, today’s international prices would barely cover the companies’ shipping costs.

“If one of these ports got approved tomorrow, they could have the option of losing $10 a ton selling more coal,” said Evan Kurtz, analyst at Morgan Stanley.

U.S. miners need to set aside their export plans and address their financial problems, said Matthew Gray, a researcher at Highland Capital Management LP, which manages $17 billion in assets, including Arch debt. Miners can rebound by shrinking to match the smaller domestic market and emerging from bankruptcy with improved finances, he said.

Coal companies publicly say they haven’t given up on exports. Cloud Peak expects Asian customers to start buying U.S. coal again as developing economies build more coal-fired power plants, said Tom Nelson, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. Several companies maintain rights to ship coal through these terminals.

“We remain supportive of the [Millennium] project and will continue to engage with [its owner],” a spokeswoman for Arch wrote in an email.

However, an executive at one of the miners involved one of the Washington terminals said the projects are “not dead, but barely on life support.” Meanwhile, the biggest terminal on Canada’s West Coast has spare capacity now that exports have slowed and could handle an uptick.

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