written 21 Sep 2021
published 26 Sep 2021
We recently learned of a plan to reopen the rail line north from Willits in order to ship coal to Asia out of Eureka. This is an example of the financial inertia of a collapsing business model.
Coal is the most abundant of the fossil fuels, but the most limited, only good for external combustion industries like electric power production and steel. Burning coal produces more climate changing carbon per unit energy, spreads toxic mercury and sulfur downwind, and leaves hazardous coal ash. Renewable energy and natural gas are cheaper alternatives, so coal is an economic loser, and can't compete in the market place in countries that care about their environment and public health. Consequently, coal plants are closing down in the US, and consumption is even falling globally.
But the corporations that own coal deposits are unwilling to accept the environmental and economic bankruptcy of their investments. With diminishing domestic consumption, coal has to be exported to countries that are still in denial about killing their people and our planet, primarily in Asia. However, less than 10 percent of coal is shipped from western North American ports and those communities vigorously oppose allowing new or expanded export of coal through them, not only for global environmental concerns, but because the shipping process itself is dirty and toxic to the local area. It is understandable that coal exporters want to open Eureka as another outlet, but reality may precludes their fantasies.
Apart from political opposition to such an operation through a very blue part of California, there are physical and economic barriers. The harbor in Eureka is about 40' deep where it is dredged, and the turning basin can only handle ships less than 400' in length. Coal is only economically shipped in vessels which are 900' long and draw 75' of water. The Humboldt Bay Harbor District is committed to a "green harbor", and wants nothing to do with exporting coal. The corporation that plans to open the railroad to Eureka claims to have $1.5B in funding, but estimates to rebuild the line north of Willits are more than $3B. Such a construction project would take years, and the economics of coal export could be quite different before completion. To even get a train to Willits, it would have to travel across tracks owned by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), which has invested millions upgrading their infrastructure for high-speed rapid transit trains. Operating long slow unit trains of coal would quickly destroy that investment, so SMART would be unlikely to agree to such operations.
But corporations have a history of ignoring reality. It is hard to admit that you have bet on a losing proposition, and only a few are shrewd enough to cut their loses early. We are witnessing a similar issue locally.
A Ukiah developer who owns tracts of raw land outside the City limits in the hills west of Ukiah wants to maximize his profits with low density, high value residential development. This kind of wild-land urban interface development is causing increasing concern in the fire insurance industry. State fire codes and regulations are in flux as more California communities burn to the ground each year, but at this point the County is not prohibiting such development, and construction is proceeding with boundary line adjustments, avoiding the more rigorous planning scrutiny of a formal subdivision.
Rather than risking the threat of an even worse project, the City has considered buying land for open space and approving development of 54 acres as residential, allowing at least 14 high end homes, just outside of the recently constructed shaded fuel break, accessed by a single road. The City is expected to provide access, power, water, sewage, and fire response. The concept of the project was approved last week, but the deal has fallen apart over access across a third part land.
This project is a fiscal gain for the owner, but puts the rest of our community at risk, just as the coal train would benefit a very few at the expense of everyone else. Because our culture prioritizes individual profit above all else, and refuses to recognize cumulative impact on the interconnected whole, we risk losing it all. At some point we will evolve our fiscal models or die in bankrupt denial.