Ranker battles bill that could smooth Cherry Point coal terminal’s path

Backers of a Washington state Senate bill calling for faster regulatory review of “basic commodity transportation” projects insist the measure has nothing to do with the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier proposed for Whatcom County’s Cherry Point.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker is convinced otherwise.

The bill, SB 5805, would amend language in an existing law meant to encourage “projects of statewide significance for economic development and transportation.” Among other things, the amendments add language making “basic commodity transportation” projects eligible for faster regulatory review. Language in existing law orders local governments to cooperate with state officials and project proponents to speed up the regulatory process for qualifying economic development proposals.

“This bill would remove Whatcom County from the decision-making process” on Gateway Pacific, Ranker, D-40th, said Thursday, Feb. 28.

On Friday, Ranker and other Democratic senators filed several amendments meant to remove its potential impact on the coal terminal. The bill and the amendments are expected to be the subject of debate on the Senate floor the week of March 4.

Via Facebook and other social media, Gateway Pacific opponents are encouraging people to contact their legislators to express their opposition to the bill.

SSA Marine of Seattle is proposing the Gateway Pacific project to export Powder River Basin coal to China and other Asian markets.

SB 5805 was introduced Feb. 15 and passed along to the Rules Committee after a brief Feb. 21 hearing in the Trade and Economic Committee. Committee members made passing reference to coal projects and constituent concerns about it, but did not clarify whether the bill would impact those projects.

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-44th, is a co-sponsor of the bill. Hobbs said SB 5805 had been introduced in previous sessions as part of an effort to get approval for a “pit to pier” gravel shipping terminal in Jefferson County that has been stalled for many years, partly because of opposition from environmentalists and local residents.

“Coal was not in mind when this bill was drafted,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs endorsed the Gateway Pacific proposal before his 2012 race for a 1st District House seat, in which he garnered 7 percent of the vote in the primary.

Josh Swanson, a lobbyist for the International Union of Operating Engineers, also supports both SB 5805 and Gateway Pacific. Like Hobbs, he said the two are not related: The bill is about gravel shipments in Jefferson County, and backers of the Jefferson County project have been trying to get the legislation passed for many years.

Swanson wasn’t sure if SB 5805 could benefit Gateway Pacific if it became law, and he understands why the project’s opponents are worried that it might.

“I certainly think the argument could be made,” Swanson said. “I understand that.”

Mike Ennis, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, also said Gateway Pacific was not on the minds of those who drafted SB 5805, and he scoffed at the notion that it might benefit the coal terminal.

“I think it’s just scare tactics by the enviros,” Ennis said.

Asked if Gateway Pacific could benefit from the bill if it became law, Ennis stopped short of a flat denial.

“I don’t think they could, but that’s as far as I’ll go,” Ennis said.

The Association of Washington Business is on record in support of Gateway Pacific.

Gateway Pacific spokesman Craig Cole said he checked with SSA’s lobbyist in Olympia and was told that the company is not playing a role in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“It’s not our deal,” Cole said.

Asked if the bill could benefit Gateway Pacific, Cole said he had no idea.

Ranker says SB 5805’s backers are correct when they say the bill had its origins in a desire to move forward with the gravel-shipping pier project in Jefferson County. But that doesn’t change the fact that the bill’s language also could be applied to Gateway Pacific, he said. He also suspects that many of the senators and lobbyists supporting the bill are well aware of that fact.

The amendments introduced by SB 5805’s foes contain provisions saying local governments must consent to an expedited permit process for a project within their jurisdictions. Ranker’s amendments strip the bill of language that would make “transportation” and “basic commodity transportation” projects eligible for express-lane service in the regulatory process.

Ranker said he thinks it’s likely the Republican-controlled Senate will pass SB 5805, but it won’t get through the Democratic House, and even if it does, it won’t get past the veto pen of Gov. Jay Inslee.