WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration is considering using West Coast military installations or other federal properties to open the way for more U.S. fossil fuel exports to Asia, but environmentalists see the proposal as nothing more than a handout to the fossil fuel industry which ignores the costs of climate change.
Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke made the proposal public in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, noting that the department’s plan is only in its beginning stages.
According to the secretary, opening up military and naval bases, or other government owned properties to coal export could be a way for the U.S. to tap a lucrative energy export market for U.S allies like China, Japan and South Korea.
Only one site flagged for possible development was named on Monday: the Adak Naval Air Facility in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The secretary did not elaborate on any other prospective sites.
“[It’s] in our interest for national security and our allies to make sure that they have access to affordable energy commodities,” Zinke said of the proposal.
On Tuesday, the Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The plan was met with immediate backlash: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, slammed the plan as “harebrained,” a potential violation of state rights and wholly inconsiderate of another looming threat to national security: climate change.
States like Washington, Oregon and California have rejected similar proposals from the private sector in the past, denying permits for the construction of export sites.
The states have historically argued that the shipping of fossil fuels from those regions poses too great a danger for residents and causes widespread damage to the climate overall.
When reached by Courthouse News on Tuesday,a spokesperson for California Governor Jerry Brown declined to comment.
Bill Magavern, policy director at the California-based Coalition for Clean Air told Courthouse News that Zinke’s proposal is just “another effort to prop up the failing coal industry at the expense of public health.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal exports to Asia have doubled but exports to Europe have gradually decreased and are only expected to continue falling.
The administration’s belief that coal is a cash-cow or will remain an energy source in high demand ignores comprehensive reality and fails to acknowledge basic economics, according to Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager at the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth.
“I spent many years working on and [analyzing] international coal markets. The forecasts are horrible,” she said. “[The proposal] is not about energy security for the U.S. It’s a nefarious argument to promote the interests of their donors and their friends.”
Any base that would be converted could be “hugely dangerous,” Ghio said.
“Wherever you’re looking – it’s not just contamination from the site where coal is held. There’s bad weather, areas prone to shipping accidents – you’re talking about how the coal gets there, with increased train and truck traffic through communities that have be exposed to this,” she said.
Magavern echoed Ghio’s position, saying the Coalition for Clean Air is concerned that exporting coal from military bases would only further expose military employees and nearby communities to pollution from the transport.
According to a report released by the Department of Defense in March, at least 126 active military bases are already contaminated with dangerous levels of perfluorinated compounds. Groundwater on the bases is steeped in the cancer-linked chemical which is found in everything from the foam used to put out aircraft fires on base to the very containers service members eat from.
With these pollution issues occurring at active bases already, the idea of creating new problems for new communities is untenable, Ghio said.
“It’s really hard to overstate how damaging this proposal is,” she said.
Zinke did not tell the Associated Press whether the Interior Department considered opening bases for renewable energy production instead.
Though renewable energy is “highly localized,” Ghio noted, there are retired military bases near her home in Oakland, California that have been converted to renewable export centers – and to some success.
“You can create jobs locally and what a good project may look like can vary but … there are better uses for our land and better ways to get energy,” she said.
Whether the future is renewable energy export sites or not, Magavern said he believed “states should be able to enact protections for the air that their residents breathe.”
California, which has been at the forefront of advancing environmental regulations aimed at curbing climate change, is still in the midst of a battle to eliminate caps on the amount of renewable energy military bases there can produce.
Currently, those bases are capped at 12 megawatts and the 2015 legislation which enshrined the cap, bars the military from receiving kickbacks if excess electricity produced on site is distributed to the commercial grid.
In June, the California Public Utilities Commission pursued a removal of the cap but that process could take years.