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Coal and Oil Transportation in the Northwest

This page provides general information about issues associated with coal and oil transportation in the Northwest, including environmental review of proposed projects, local government actions, and selected media coverage.


Most of the coal delivered to U.S. consumers and for foreign export is transported by railroads. Citizens and local governments in Washington State are concerned about the impacts of increased rail traffic going through their communities and the impacts of proposed coal and oil export facilities at Cherry Point, Longview, Vancouver, and other potential locations. There are currently three sites proposed for coal export facilities in the Northwest that collectively could increase U.S. coal exports by about 100 million tons of coal annually. Coal transported to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point near Bellingham could increase coal train traffic in Seattle to as many as 18 coal trains daily.

In Washington State, new oil terminal facilities are proposed in Vancouver and Grays Harbor, and the state's five existing refineries from Tacoma to Ferndale are planning to expand.

Environmental Review of Coal and Oil Facilities

Most cities and counties, other than those where facilities are located, have limited roles in the permitting of coal and oil terminals. Yet the impacts of the rail and waterborne transport of coal and oil affect many communities across the state. These impacts include health and pollution issues associated with railroad and tanker accidents, traffic congestion at rail crossings, air quality concerns, and the indirect impacts of increased greenhouse gases on the environment.

The Washington State Department of Ecology is playing a central role in the environmental review process for the proposed coal and oil facilities. Local governments are key participants in the environmental review of these major facilities, and communities across the state are interested in full disclosure of environmental impacts.

MRSC Insight Blog Posts

Washington State Resources Addressing Coal Facilities and Impacts

These websites are the best starting points for the environmental review process for the proposed Washington coal terminals. Draft EIS's are not anticipated to be issued until late in 2015.

  • Environmental Impact Statement, Proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal/Cluster Spur, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County, co-lead agencies - Official website for the SEPA/NEPA EIS for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal/Custer Spur projects
  • Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview EIS - Central website for Cowlitz County, Department of Ecology, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joint process to prepare a NEPA EIS and a SEPA EIS

Washington State Resources Addressing Oil Transportation

These resources provide statewide perspectives on oil transportation and its hazards and impacts.

Local Government Environmental and Permit Review

Several Washington cities and counties have central websites to address the permitting and environmental review of the coal and oil terminals.

  • Whatcom County Gateway Pacific/Pacific International Terminals Project - Main portal for Whatcom County review of GPT project. Since Whatcom County is the lead agency in permitting the GPT facility at Cherry Point, the county's website is a good starting point for information on issues associated with the transportation of coal for export.
  • Bellingham Gateway Pacific Terminal Regulatory Review - Information about the regulatory review process and city of Bellingham documents submitted to agencies leading the process.
  • Vancouver Hot Topic - Oil and Coal Project - Vancouver's response to the Tesoro Savage oil transport project at the Port of Vancouver and the Millennium Coal Terminal proposal in Longview.

Resolutions Related to Coal Transportation

  • Edmonds Resolution No. 1280 (2012) - Expresses concern about potential adverse impacts of increased coal traffic and requests that impacts to the city of Edmonds be addressed
  • Olympia Resolution No. M-1793 (2013) - Opposes construction of coal export facilities
  • Seattle Resolution No. 31379 (2012) - Opposes transportation of coal through Seattle
  • Spokane Resolution No. 2012-0052 (2012) - Expresses interest regarding potential impacts of increased rail traffic passing through Spokane resulting from proposed terminal projects
  • Vancouver Resolution No. M-3778 (2012) - Requests comprehensive review of coal export terminals to include the City of Vancouver as a party of interest in any environmental review
  • Washougal Resolution No. 1048 (2012) - Expresses concern about potential adverse impacts of increased coal traffic and requesting authority to require an EIS

Resolutions Related to Oil Transportation

These resolutions address environmental concerns regarding oil terminals and rail transport.

Environmental and Economic Studies

Some communities have conducted traffic studies and other reports to address the impact of trains that transport coal and oil passing through or stopping in their area. Most of these address the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Background Information Regarding Coal and Oil Transportation

This section includes general information from the federal government and articles addressing rail transportation of coal and oil.

News Articles Regarding Rail Transportation of Coal and Oil

There has been extensive media coverage of the issues associated with the proposed rail export terminals and the increased train traffic associated with these terminals. The following are some selected news articles on rail transportation of coal and oil in the Northwest. Articles are listed in reverse date order, with most recent articles first:

Series on Coal and Oil from Sightline

Sightline Institute researches best practices in public policy for a sustainable Northwest.

  • The Northwest's Pipeline on RailsSightline Daily - Frequently updated blog on shipping of crude oil by train to Northwest refineries and port terminals
  • The Wrong Side of the TracksSightline Daily - Analysis of the traffic impacts of oil and coal trains in communities throughout the Northwest
  • Northwest Coal ExportsSightline Project - Series of articles posted by Eric de Place of Sightline; useful regular updates on this topic

Last Modified: November 05, 2019