‘Green’ strategists hired by coal companies to push train proposals

A coal train moves through Seattle en route to Vancouver, B.C. Efforts to bring coal terminals to Washington and Oregon have enlisted some lobbyists and public-relations firms long connected with environmental causes. Photo: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
A coal train moves through Seattle en route to Vancouver, B.C. Efforts to bring coal terminals to Washington and Oregon have enlisted some lobbyists and public-relations firms long connected with environmental causes. Photo: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times

Several prominent local strategists with “green” reputations are now pushing a set of controversial proposals to make the Pacific Northwest the continent’s biggest coal exporter.

By Brian M. Rosenthal, Seattle Times

As executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, Bruce Gryniewski helped shape the organization into one of the state’s most influential environmental groups.

Five years after leaving for a consulting firm, Gryniewski has resurfaced as a player in one of the biggest environmental battles in the Pacific Northwest in decades.

Only now he’s working for the other side.

“Our firm has a passion for growing the Northwest economy,” said Gryniewski, explaining his work in support of a proposed new coal port in Longview. He added, “I don’t believe in this eco-McCarthyism view that if you work for coal, you can’t do anything good in the world.”

Gryniewski is among a group of local strategists with “green” reputations hired by coal companies to build support for the Longview facility and four other proposed ports in Washington and Oregon that would ship Rocky Mountain coal to Asia.

The proposals — which would bring hundreds of union-wage jobs and, at least temporarily, hundreds of millions of tons of coal to the Pacific Northwest — have cheered job-hungry workers but enraged environmentalists who are now hoping to use the debate to highlight the harmful effects of global warming.

As the proposals begin a yearslong approval process, the strategists are crafting advertisements, handling media relations, lobbying public officials and getting people to come to hearings or write letters to the editor.

Their firms were described in a recent report by the Sightline Institute, a prominent coal opponent. They include several that are well-known in Democratic circles in Seattle and Portland: Nyhus Communications, Edelman, Berk, ECONorthwest and Smith & Stark Strategic Solutions.

The unusual dynamic has caused a few awkward interactions between traditional allies now turned adversaries, some state lawmakers say. Others argue that the situation illustrates a divide between the union and environmental wings of the Democratic Party.

In interviews, representatives from several of the firms argued the new jobs for the region would outweigh negative consequences from the coal, which they said Asian countries would get from somewhere anyway.

“I think it’s an oversimplification to say that if you don’t meet that demand, it will disappear,” said Lauri Hennessey, a vice president at Edelman who has worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The more you dig into the whole complicated issue, I feel very, very proud about being involved.”

As for personal relationships, Hennessey said she believes “it’s very possible to disagree with someone and still respect them.”

But some environmental leaders said reconciliation will be difficult this time simply because of the stakes of the fight.

“This isn’t like being on different sides of a primary or something like that,” said Brendon Cechovic, who now serves in Gryniewski’s old role at Washington Conservation Voters. “This is a completely unprecedented proposal in our state’s history. This is a big deal.”

Port proposals

The “unprecedented proposal” is actually five separate proposals of coal-shipping plans. Each involves different companies and is operating on different timelines.

In Washington, Peabody Energy and SSA Marine want to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Ferndale to ship 48 million tons each year, and Ambre Energy and Arch Coal are hoping to construct the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview to ship 44 million tons.

The other three, all smaller, would be in Oregon.

If all five are built, they would ship nearly 150 million tons of coal to China and other Asian countries — making the Pacific Northwest the largest exporter of the fossil fuel in North America.

There now are only two coal berths on the West Coast: in Alaska and southern British Columbia.

The scramble to increase exports stems from rising demand in Asia and declining American reliance on coal power.

But before construction, each proposal must pass a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and county governments.

Those agencies haven’t even decided the scope of the reviews.

Supporters hope to limit the reviews to the economic and environmental effects on the immediate areas. Opponents want to include factors such as how mile-long trains hauling the coal westward would affect life in towns along the route and how burning coal affects the Earth — which would offer a platform to call attention to harmful effects of climate change.

Public input is part of the process. So supporters are focused on getting as many people on board as possible.

Public relations

That’s the job of the communications firms.

Gryniewski’s firm, Gallatin Public Affairs, is doing public relations for the Longview project. The firm’s point person is Aaron Toso, a former spokesman for then-Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Hennessey’s firm, Edelman, is the voice behind the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of pro-export unions.

Nyhus is involved with another coalition, Move Forward Washington.

“We’re proud of our environmental commitment — the work we’ve done for a variety of sustainable enterprises, from clean technology to green buildings,” said Roger Nyhus, who served as a spokesman for then-Gov. Gary Locke. “I don’t see that being inconsistent with the work that we’re doing here.”

Smith & Stark has done public relations for the project near Ferndale in Whatcom County. Gary Smith said he is personally involved with several environmental groups but doesn’t often represent them professionally.

And ECONorthwest and Berk, which traditionally analyze projects on behalf of environmental groups and municipal governments, each did an analysis of an export proposal paid for by the coal companies.

Strategic hiring

Opponents, who themselves are well-funded and organized, speculated that the coal companies intentionally hired strategists with green reputations.

“If you’ve fought shoulder to shoulder with someone for years on similar causes, it might make your voice carry more weight,” said state Rep. Jeff Morris, a Mount Vernon Democrat whose district is near Ferndale.

Indeed, Gryniewski’s bio on Gallatin’s website highlights his tenure at Washington Conservation Voters and notes that he brings “practical relationships and public policy knowledge to help business interests navigate the often-challenging political and regulatory environment in the Pacific Northwest.”

The coal companies disputed the opponents’ theory.

In a statement, Millennium CEO Ken Miller said his firm chose Gallatin because it is “a bipartisan firm with a successful track record working with brownfield-redevelopment sites and experience permitting large infrastructure projects.”

Regardless of the reason for the hires, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle said he is “deeply disappointed” in the traditionally green strategists now working for the coal companies.

But then the Seattle Democrat paused and said he doesn’t take it personally.

“It’s just one of those realities when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake,” he said. “This is the gig, and the game we’re in.”