Interactive Map: follow the coal route’s journey, from the mines of Utah, to Oakland and across the Pacific, here.
Coal is Utah’s official state rock. A report from the Utah Geological Survey says it generated $594 million in value for the state in 2014, and approximately 16.8 million tons of coal were mined in 2014, according to a report prepared by the Utah Economic Council. Now, a controversial development deal could mean that up to 9.5 to 10.5 millions tons of Utah’s coal will be hauled to Oakland’s port, where it would be shipped westward to countries across the Pacific.
Most of Utah’s coal stays within Utah. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the state’s primary source of energy is coal, and three fourths of the coal pulled out of the ground is consumed within that state. More than 80 percent of that jet black fuel is used to fire electric-producing coal plants. Government reports show that the state’s aggressive mining of its abundant coal makes Utah’s electricity among the cheapest in the nation.
Utah has viable coal fields that cover most of the state. Out of 29 counties, big and small, 16 have substantial coal deposits beneath the ground. The largest and densest concentrations of coal lie near the state’s geographic center and in the south. Utah’s central coal fields are the Wasatch Plateau, Emery and Book Cliffs deposits. Smaller deposits dot the western flank of these fields; these are the Mount Pleasant, Wales, Sterling, and Salina Canyon coal areas. In the south lie the Harmony coal field, the large Kolob and Alton fields, and the richest coal field according to the Bureau of Land Management: the Kaiparowits Plateau.
The crucial difference between central Utah and southern Utah is that the coal motherlode of the Kaiparowits, Alton, and Kolob is not extensively mined, Bureau of Land Management and maps show. This is partly because a large part of southern Utah is made up federally-owned land, which requires coal companies to work out agreements with the bureau. This can be a lengthy, complicated, and above all, public process which can attract attention from environmental groups. NPR Utah reported in June, 2015, that environmentalists rallied to stop a recent large coal lease in the state’s center, but the lease was ultimately permitted.
In the south, wilderness groups have historically fended off the BLM’s attempts to lease coal-rich land. But there is a crucial difference between the two regions. Often, coal’s economic viability depends on cheap transportation, according to Coal Age, a coal industry publication that provides news, analysis and advocacy.
Central Utah’s coal production relies heavily on access to one thing: the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad offers the best western train routes for freight, but Union Pacific maps show it mostly circumvents the coal-rich south of Utah. But in Utah’s coal heartland, there is plenty of track. Tracks are placed nearby coal deposits and many mining companies have been able to build private train tracks that link to the Union Pacific network, according to maps painstakingly reconstructed in detail by Don Strack, a Utah railroad enthusiast. Cheap large-scale transportation allowed the coal industry to gain a foothold here in the late 19th century.
But despite coal’s venerated status in the state, Utah was only the 16th largest US producer of coal in 2014, states a report by the National Mining Association. Since 2012, coal production in Utah has dropped significantly, according to the Utah Economic Council. Demand is low, “especially out-of-state,” according to their 2014 Economic Outlook Report. While demand for coal in the United States has been dragging, demand in Asia is much higher. India is especially promising. According to International Energy Agency forecasts, India’s already substantial demand for imported coal will double in the next four years.
The coal industry in the US interior has been searching for a reliable West Coast port to ship coal out to markets around the world for at least a decade, according articles in Coal Age. “The other half of the delivery equation is the railroad that serves the mine and the terminal. Locating a nice deep site for a ship loading berth is not enough; there must be a modern railroad connected to it,” wrote Dave Gambrel and the Coal Age news staff in a 2010 article about finding a West Coast port for coal exports.
This spring, Oaklanders learned that some people in Utah’s coal heartland were now considering their city’s port. On April 7th, the Richfield Reaper, a small newspaper in Utah, broke the story about a plan that could change the industry’s West Coast port access woe. According to the report, the Utah Permanent Community Impact Board (referred to as CIB) was going to loan $53 million to Sevier, Emery, Carbon and Sanpete counties to “purchase an interest in a port that is under development in Oakland, Calif.”
That port under development the article refers to is the former Oakland Army Base, which was decommissioned in 1999. It is located at the intersection of Highways 80, 580 and 880 in the crook of the small peninsula from which the Bay Bridge springs across to Treasure Island. For years, the City of Oakland had been searching for a way to productively develop the base, and had contracted Phil Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group partnership with Prologis to convert the city’s land.
Oakland City Council meetings were packed in the wake of the news. Demonstrators turned out with those against the coal shipments wearing red and those in favor wearing yellow. The support camp argued mostly for the employment boom that the base development would create, especially with a busy terminal. They did not want to lose the project.
Those against the coal shipments cited health concerns and worries about possible environmental degradation of the bay and surrounding communities. The trains’ route would go straight through low-income neighborhoods, they argued, potentially exposing residents to harmful effects from inhaling coal dust. They also argued that millions of pounds of coal would be shipped to other countries to be burned, which would release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and exacerbate global warming.
On October 2nd, Sierra Club and Earthjustice sued the City of Oakland arguing that coal shipments running through West Oakland would violate California Environmental Quality Act. The suit asks for a new environmental review under California law, which could scuttle any plans to use the Oakland Army Base redevelopment to ship coal. Lawsuit documents from Earthjustice and Sierra Club say that coal was never mentioned when city officials, including former mayor Jean Quan, originally reviewed the plan as early as 2013. At the very least, the lawsuit could slow the development plan, which is still being debated by the city council.