Group says exports to Asia could hike coal traffic through Great Falls – Great Falls Tribune, March 22, 2013

March 25, 2013

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, Events, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Karl Puckett

A conservation and agriculture group has scheduled a meeting Tuesday in Great Falls to discuss what it claims would be increasedrail congestion in Montana if proposals to ship more Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia via West Coast ports are realized.

A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway takes issue with some of the group’s projections and says increased traffic, if it occurs, will not derail agricultural shipments.

Beth Kaeding of Bozeman, a member of Northern Plains Resource Council’s coal task force, says members are trying to raise awareness on what increased coal exports, if they come to pass, mean for the state.

“We’re just trying to make sure everybody understands what’s going on,” Kaeding said.

She says Great Falls could be affected.

One rail route from the coal fields in southeastern Montana splits at Laurel, Kaeding said.

From there, a Montana Rail Link line goes through Bozeman, Helena and on to Missoula, Kaeding said. A second line, owned by BNSF Railway, goes through Great Falls and up to the Hi-Line before turning west along Highway 2 south ofGlacier National Park.

“There’s two ways coal can be routed, and we have no idea how they are going to do this,” Kaeding said.

Northern Plains says the coal exports, if coal company protections come to pass, would lead to more coal car traffic, and argues the increase would lead to rail congestion affecting agricultural shipments, more noise and traffic delays and increased risk of derailments.

“I don’t think anyone can assume where their traffic would go,” said BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg, adding the market will determine where coal companies ship coal. “You can’t assume that all of it’s going to go for export.”

Lundsberg also noted that BNFS would not be transporting all the coal produced in the area, an assumption that opponents make about future coal traffic through the state. Union Pacific also is operating in the Powder River Basin coal fields, she said. But its line travels through Idaho and Oregon, Lundsberg said.

Currently, BNSF moves 270,000 carloads of Montana coal to coal-fired power plants in 12 states a year.

Arch Coal is proposing the Otter Creek Mine in southeastern Montana and BNFS Railway is proposing a new 42-mile railway connecting the mine to an existing line.

The mine, if approved, would accommodate up to four loaded trains, Lundsberg said. There are about 110 car loads on a single train. “Four trains a day, that’s not a lot,” she said.

Another wrong assumption, she says, is that all of the proposed West Coast coal terminals will end up being constructed. Arch Coal, she added, might not ship all the Otter Creek coal overseas, which also would reduce the amount of coal sent west to the coast.

Kaeding acknowledges that the group doesn’t have complete data on the amount of coal that would be shipped. Information has been gathered from statements coal executives have made about export projections to investors or in the media.

“The coal is going to come through,” said Arlo Scari, a Chester-area wheat farmer and Northern Plains member. “We want to hear from Burlington Northern where, definitely, what routes they’re going to take and what they’re going to do about it.”

The Western Organization of Resource Councils commissioned a study on coal traffic called “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” Northern Plains is a member of the group.

The study predicts explosive growth in coal traffic if proposed coal mine expansions and coal ports on the coast are completed.

The group calculated that coal shipments to Asian markets from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming could exceed 75 million tons per year by 2017 and 170 million tons by 2022.

Kaeding says 3 million to 6 million tons are being shipped for export annually now from the area, mostly from Wyoming.

U.S. coal producers and suppliers are actively looking to expand steam coal production from mines and origins in the Powder River Basin and shifting significant coal volumes away from domestic destinations to existing and proposed Pacific Northwest export coal terminals for shipment overseas, the study says.

Skari, the Chester-area wheat farmer, said he is concerned that an increase in coal car shipments will hamper Montana farmers in getting their grain to market. About 80 percent of Montana grain is shipped to Asian markets, he noted.

“I can see a clutter of trains,” he said.

New grain loading facilities have recently been constructed along rail lines in north central Montana allowing grain to be quickly shipped to market, he noted. And more Montana farmers are taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, in which land sits idle, because of good crop prices.

If coal traffic does increase, it will not affect agricultural shipments, BNSF’s Lundsberg said. “It just simply won’t,” she said.

Annually, BNFS transports more than 63,000 carloads of wheat, barley and other farm products to market annually. Lundsberg said the company invested $111 million in maintenance and rail capacity improvements in the state in 2012, which is proof of the company’s commitment to its customers including farmers, she said. Shipments of agricultural products, oil and other types of freight all are increasing, prompting the investment, she said.


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