North Coast elected officials opposing coal train proposal on various fronts
Elected officials from Northern California counties and cities are rolling out resolutions and even a statehouse bill opposing a mysterious proposal to ship coal up to Humboldt Bay on both existing and defunct rail lines.
The flurry of measures came even though no new information has surfaced about who is behind the coal shipping proposal, which came to light in late August through filings with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees freight rail shipping.
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, have said the newly created North Coast Rail Company intends to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin by rail for ultimate international export out of Humboldt Bay.
In California, the lawmakers said, the intention is to use the SMART line and also restore more northerly rail lines overseen by the North Coast Railroad Authority. That defunct railroad runs through sensitive environmental areas earmarked for preservation, like the Grand Canyon of the Eel River. The rail has largely been abandoned since 1998 as a result of unstable soil washing out.
McGuire estimated the North Coast could one day see as many as four trainloads of coal, each a hundred cars long, per day, with four empty trainloads returning. He reached the estimate using current commodity prices to calculate how much coal a company would have to ship to meet a minimum return on investment that would be demanded by federal railroad regulators before they would approve such a venture, he said.
Such trains would run through the crowded North Bay, where the existing railroad right of way cuts through the heart of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Cloverdale, Windsor, Headsburg and other cities.
McGuire called on those behind the proposal to show themselves.
“They’re hiding behind this anonymous (limited liability corporation), and if their proposal is so good, show yourself, come public and make your case,” he said. “Face the community that they propose to do business with.”
Robert Wimbish, a Chicago-based lawyer who filed paperwork on behalf of the North Coast Rail Company with the Surface Transportation Board, said he was not authorized to speak to the media but passed on a Press Democrat request for comment to his client. The company did not reach out to a reporter this week. North Coast Rail Company sprang into existence through a secretive LLC registered in Wyoming just 10 days before it made its filing.
With coal declining as a global energy source and a steep investment required, officials put the minimum cost to rebuild just the rail line higher than $2 billion. That does not include the cost to build out a coal shipping port in Humboldt Bay. It also doesn’t include the expense of fighting an extended legal and public relations battle in a region firmly opposed to coal and dedicated to climate change mitigation politically.
Those factors led at least one energy industry expert to say the prospect was economically unwieldy.
“It’s the longest of long shots,” said Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Local elected officials aren’t taking any chances, however.
McGuire has introduced Senate Bill 307 to block any state funding from going to rebuilding the rail line or building a suitable export terminal for coal in Humboldt Bay — one of many major obstacles would-be coal shippers would have to overcome on the North Coast.
“No way, no how are we going to let this happen,” McGuire said.
His statehouse bill is being followed by a wave of resolutions by local governing bodies opposing the proposal. The Transportation Authority of Marin passed a resolution against the idea on Sept. 23. The Novato City Council and the Marin County Board of Supervisors are set to consider similar resolutions in coming weeks. The Mendocino Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in opposition on Sept. 15, as did the Ukiah City Council.
Members of the Windsor Town Council, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council all told The Press Democrat this week they would be bringing their own proposals, as elected members of bodies up and down the SMART line rush to indicate their opposition to even the slightest possibility of long trains of coal chugging through the North Bay.