A study released Thursday by coal export opponents tallies the economic risks of barging coal down the Columbia River –- from the cost of killing salmon and emitting air pollution to increased accidents and impacts to recreation in the Columbia River Gorge.
The report's author, Ecotrust economist Noah Enelow, suggests that the project's benefits might not be worth the risks of building the Morrow Pacific project.
"The Morrow Pacific project places over $2 billion in natural and cultural assets at risk, including salmon habitat, recreational values and water quality," he said in a statement. "These risks to livelihood, natural resources and economies must be studied further before an informed decision can be made."
The study's conclusions were derided as absurd, speculative and flawed by a spokeswoman for the project. Her company commissioned a study of its own in 2012, which calculated an initial $400 million in economic benefits from the project.
The new report critical of the project was commissioned and paid for by Power Past Coal, a coalition of environmental organizations and other groups opposed to coal exports in Oregon and Washington.
The Morrow Pacific project is the smallest of three proposals to export coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia through the Pacific Northwest. It would ship around 9 million tons of coal per year by rail to a dock at the Port of Morrow in Eastern Oregon and transfer the coal to barges on the Columbia River. The barges would carry the coal to a dock at the Port of St. Helens northwest of Portland. From there it would be transferred to ships headed overseas.
The 2012 ECONorthwest economic impact study commissioned by Morrow Pacific found the project would deliver nearly $400 million in economic benefits initially, with an additional $300 million per year after that. The benefits include 2,100 construction jobs, 1,000 permanent jobs, and up to $4 million in annual property taxes in Columbia and Morrow counties.
Enelow says those benefits need to be weighed against a long list of risks associated with the project.
Among those described in Enelow's report:
Morrow Pacific spokeswoman Liz Fuller called the study "a PR tactic" and "rhetoric disguised as research."
"We are in the process of reviewing the report," Fuller said. "However, even our first, cursory review has revealed absurd and speculative assumptions, flawed-methodology and conclusions that look like they were reached before the research was conducted."
Enelow's analysis of impacts to salmon in the Columbia River relies in part on an environmental review by project developer Ambre Energy. It found the project is likely to adversely affect protected salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River basin.
To calculate the value of salmon at risk, Enelow used previous studies on commercial and recreational salmon fisheries and surveys of what citizens in Oregon and Washington say they're willing to pay for salmon restoration. Altogether, he placed the value of salmon on the Columbia at between $1.5 billion and $4.5 billion.
Enelow said it's very unlikely that all the salmon in the Columbia would be wiped out by the Morrow Pacific project, but that some impacts can be expected.
Using figures from a 2006 study on fish stranded in ship wakes, Enelow determined that the Morrow Pacific project could create 113 wake-stranding events per year that would affect around 1,000 salmon or steelhead. Over 20 years, he calculates, the value of those lost fish would add up to around $50 million.
He used risk estimates from a 2012 study of barge traffic on the Fraser River in British Columbia to predict that there would be 24 barge accidents associated with the Morrow Pacific project and almost one fuel or coal spill (0.8 spills) per year.
The accuracy of those predictions depends on how similar the Columbia River is to the Fraser River, he acknowledged. But he says the results of the Fraser River study suggest Oregon should conduct its own study on the Columbia.
"Twenty-four barge accidents. That to me is very worrisome," Enelow said. "How big would those accidents be? How severe would they be? We don't know."
Enelow also questioned the project's economic benefits relative to other types of projects. For every $1 million that project developer Ambre Energy is investing in building and operating the Morrow Pacific project, he calculated, the company is creating around 19 jobs. An equivalent investment in an alternative project building light rail or renewable energy would create thousands more jobs, he found.
Enelow said it was difficult to afix dollar figures to all the risks of the project, but he hopes the study will lead Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to commission a risk-benefit analysis.
"We hope this study is the beginning of a conversation that occurs at a deeper level about this project and about coal export projects in general," Enelow said. "The main conclusion I came to was that the risks –- most of the risks –- have not been properly identified or measured."