If big coal companies get their way, the Pacific Northwest will soon become a major hub for exporting dirty coal to Asia.

In Oregon and Washington, proposals to construct several coal export terminals are on the table. If they move forward, about 150 million tons of coal each year would travel by train from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to ports in Oregon and Washington, where it would be shipped to China, India, South Korea, and Japan.

Grist’s David Roberts published an excellent primer on the topic earlier this week, concluding as follows:

This is a case where local activist fights against fossil-fuel projects matter not just for the politics of climate change, but for climate change itself. They matter for China — how much it pays for coal, how much it burns, and how fast it develops alternatives. And they matter for the U.S. The American coal industry is on the ropes. Preventing export terminals can keep it there.

The activist instinct to harry coal at every stage — mining,transport, export, power plant — is the right instinct. Coal is the enemy of the human race. It needs to be kept in the damn ground.

Here’s a rundown on those local activist fights:

  • A large and growing coalition of environmental groups, businesses, faith leaders, farmers, students, and other Pacific Northwest residents is waging an aggressive campaign to prevent coal export terminals from being approved and constructed.
  • Since March 2011, the PowerPast Coal coalition has organized 23 “coal hard truth” forums — from Billings, Mont. to Bellingham, Wash. — to educate community members about the public health and environmental threats posed by coal export proposals. These forums have been organized in partnership with local environmental groups, and they’ve provided opportunities for activists to get involved in this fight at the local level. In total, more than 3,600 local residents have attended these forums.
  • Pacific Northwest activists have submitted thousands of public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers requesting that it hold off approving permits for the proposed coal export terminals until it has conducted a complete review of the terminals’ cumulative environmental impact.
  • After hearing from local activists, dozens of local government entities throughout the region have passed resolutions or sent letters to their respective governors expressing concerns about the potential of radically increased coal exports in the region.
  • Tens of thousands of activists have signed petitions (and many others have made direct calls) to various decision makers, ranging from the Missoula City Council and local port CEOs to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.
  • In February, hundreds of activists in Washington called the state House of Representatives, helping to block a misguided bill that would have modified the Shoreline Management Act so coal export terminals could be approved without proper review.
  • On Saturday, May 5, a courageous group of Canadian activists will be physically blocking coal trains from reaching coal export terminals in British Columbia.

The message these activists are delivering to elected officials and other decision makers couldn’t be simpler: Allowing big coal companies to turn the Pacific Northwest into a coal export hub is unacceptable, both in terms of local health and our global fight against climate change.

Recent developments suggests this message may be getting through:

  • On Wednesday, Pacific Gas and Electric exercised its veto power as a major leaseholder at Oregon’s Port Westward to block a proposed coal export terminal there, effectively sending Kinder Morgan, the company proposing the terminal, back to the drawing board.
  • Last week, Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber called on the federal government to conduct a “sweeping review” of the various proposals being considered. This move represents the highest-level call yet to call for such a review, and thousands of activists registered thanks here.
  • In mid-April, the Environmental Protection Agency finally weighed in, telling the Army Corps of Engineers that the proposed coal export terminal at Oregon’s Port of Morrow has “the potential to significantly impact human health and the environment.” Crucially, the EPA also called on the Army Corps to take increased greenhouse gas emissions into account as it considers coal export proposals.
  • Also in mid-April, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden called for a “time out” on consideration of coal exports, saying the U.S. should “start thinking about export policy that involves domestic security, national security, prices and what it means for the environment.”

Two events coming up in the next few days in the Pacific Northwest will extend this movement’s effort:

Monday, May 7, in Portland; Ore.: RallyAgainst Coal Exports with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Tuesday, May 8, in Tacoma, Wash.: PierceCountry Coal Hard Truth Forum