The Political Junkie interviews “Power Past Coal”

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Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 9:00 am  //  Riley Sweeney

Matt Petryni at his desk

Riley's Note: As usual, you can find more pictures, interviews, analysis and commentary over at my home site The Political Junkie

With initiatives, campaigns and millions in advertising dollars, I figured I would take a break from the insanity of electoral politics and write about something non-controversial, like exporting coal out of Whatcom County. To that end, I sought out "Power Past Coal", a regional effort to motivate people to oppose exporting coal.

I sat down with Matt Petryni, campaign manager with Power Past Coal in Whatcom County, to get the inside scoop on the effort to stop the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. Petryni, a Sehome High School graduate, grew up in Bellingham. "This is a community I care about a lot. It's a community that I have watched evolved since then. It has become much more environmentally aware as my generation becomes more politically involved." He smiles and hastily adds that there are many environmentally active baby boomers, too. "I got involved because of my mom. She was concerned about the coal port, and brought me into the picture."

So what is Power Past Coal? "Power Past Coal is a regional coalition that RE Sources helped start to stop coal in all the regional communities that are going to be affected. We are the northwest region, but there are groups in Longview and other communities." How did this group start?  "When the proposal came to Cherry Point, the various environmental groups started talking to each other and formed a united front, an attempt to coordinate the events to stop the coal export in the Pacific Northwest. Hence: Power past coal."

So what do you folks do? "My focus is to motivate volunteers to organize the community against coal export. What that usually entails is the usual political tactics of knocking on doors, making phone calls, identifying supporters and those who haven't made up their mind, and motivating them to speak out to their elected officials."
Which elected officials? "County council mainly, they are the people who get to decide on the scope of what is studied in the application, and decide to approve the application." There has been some legal dispute (see fellow blogger, and County Council expert Shane Roth's take on it here) about whether the county council can even talk about the issue before the environmental impact statement is presented to them.

Petryni is skeptical of the council's legal position. "The legal advice that they are getting is that they can't talk about it and take a position until the process has gone through. I think it is excessively conservative on their part. For a while, they couldn't even hear anything about it. But at some point, they are going to open the scoping process to hear public comment. When they open the process, then they will then be able to hear about it. When they start hearing comments in earnest, we will activate the people we have identified on this. It is the get-out-the-vote effort, even though no one is actually voting on the issue." He also noted that co-lead agencies (translation: other goverment groups involved) such as the Department of Ecology and the Army Corps of Engineers are taking a big role in the permitting process, and they ARE taking comments.

So when will the county council be accepting comments on this project? "Latest rumor is mid-September, but there are people out there saying November. It is a four month public comment period which is completely unprecedented. Usually the comment period is thirty days, then maybe sixty days. RE Sources thought the legal max was ninety days. The county council came back with 120 days, including Sam Crawford, so we said, 'You, sir, drive a hard bargain, but I think we will take it.'”

Speaking of voting, there is another local group working on this issue, Coal-Free Bellingham. They are trying to place an initiative on the November ballot that would reclaim the people's right to regulate commerce through the city, so they can block the coal trains. I covered their first public meeting here. They are not associated with Power Past Coal, so I asked Petryni for his opinion on them.

"I really support the effort of Coal Free Bellingham in a lot of ways. It is impressive that they collected 10,000 signatures in three months, and I think that it demonstrates the sheer magnatude of opposition against the coal terminal in Bellingham." But then he sighs. "However, the city council and Judge Snyder have determined that the way their initiative is written directly conflicts with the state and federal constitution, creating a legal hurdle. I realize that our system of laws does not have the protection we need of natural resources; natural resources are not considered legal persons. They are trying to assert that. But, again, we are not involved in that. We are a 501c non-profit; we have to be very careful about how we address any sort of political involvement. We are an advocacy group, obviously, but we are trying to avoid any involvement with ballot issues and candidates."

He also expressed some mild irritation about how this came about. "This is a two step process. First we need to make sure that people are opposed to the terminal and those people who are opposed to it are identified and motivated. Once we have accomplished that, THEN we can move forward with ballot measures and political efforts, but we need to do things in the right order." He takes a moment and collects his thoughts. "It is an interesting idea, whether or not it is going to work is debatable. I like the idea that they are challenging the legal ruling. If you want to change our fundamental system of laws, just blocking the coal terminal seems reasonable by comparison, it has the effect of moving the debate in a more positive direction."

So back to Power Past Coal, what is your number one reason for opposing the Cherry Point Terminal? "For me it is climate change. I see climate change as the defining issue of my generation and it affects so many people in so many ways, as we are seeing this summer. Stopping this coal terminal keeps 5.7 gigatons of CO2 out of our atmosphere. We expect our environment to be able to change 2 degrees Celsius without catastrophic consequences and we have already created 0.8 degrees of change. Adding more CO2 will only make it worse."

But what about the economic benefits to our community? "We have other options for our economic development. You don't look to coal country for economic development, it isn't a strong economic engine. Timber is a renewable resource, software is a renewable resource; if we support and maintain those industries they will last for hundreds of year. Coal will only last for one generation. We want to be able to pass down to our children a cleaner, healthier and safer world, and this is not the way to do that."

What about your volunteers, what motivates them? "A lot of our volunteers are motivated by climate change. They want the opportunity to change the world. This is part of a movement to redefine civilization itself. For other people, this will kill their property values, it means 18 trains a day of new traffic, it will be devastating on our fisheries." He cracks a big smile, "My experience has been there is no shortage of reasons to hate this project."

Petryni works full-time for RE Sources, the environmental non-profit that has operated in Bellingham since 1982. "This is pretty much all I do with my life these days, but  . . . I'm doing God's work, so it is worth it."

How can someone help if they want to volunteer? Petryni urges potential volunteers to come to their office at 215 Holly St. in Bellingham, or contact them through their website. "Usually volunteers come here and call their friends and neighbors and ask them how they feel about coal export. Two hours a week is not big commitment. We send people out knocking on doors, we do tabling at various events. We do a lot of things like that. Our priority is making sure that our community knows the impacts, and give people the opportunities to organize other people. Its just the good, old fashioned, community organizing."

And with that, Petryni is off, packing up his Farmer's Market bucket with one of his interns, to go out and persuade the people. If you want more information about Power Past Coal, you can check out their website here. I hope to have an interview with one of the groups on the other side of this issue in the next couple of weeks.

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