Following on yesterday’s post which covered the surge in coal exports from the US, readers may be aware that various coal exporters have searched in vain for the past two years for new coal exporting locales, along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Unsurprisingly, whether in Cherry Point, Washington (near Bellingham) or in St Helens, Oregon (near Portland), environmental opposition has been stiff. This is understandable. Although the Columbia River offers some flexibility to transfer coal shipments from train to barge, it is unavoidable that new export routes for Powder River Basin coal would mean the crossing of large, lengthy coal trains through residential communities, to ports in the Pacific Northwest.
That said, as I have been tracking for nearly two years now, exports are becoming an increasingly important structural support for the US economy. Industries such as mining, oil + gas production, and the export of machinery, agricultural goods, and electronics are providing the cyclical counterpoint to an economy mired in post-crisis stagnation, beset by slow growth and low levels of labor participation.
To get some sense of the export surge, the Portland, Oregon metro region has seen exports rise to compose more than 18% of its GDP, after strong growth which began earlier in the decade. A fact sheet from Brookings, as part of their Export Nation 2012 series, has very good data on Portland, and other US metros. Additionally, for more recent data on 2011 exports, I found this chart from Rick Knoder at the State of Oregon Employment Department, from his very good piece, Oregon’s Domestic and Foreign Exports.
There is an emerging tension between environmental concerns and a world hungry for North American natural resources, that will only intensify as the decade wears on. I addressed this earlier this year in The Price of Growth. While the high cost of oil and global shipping will surely provide a tailwind to restore US industrialism, before the US can hope to more fully resurrect this manufacturing base (on the back of very cheap electricity rates and cheap natural gas) it is likely that increased exports of raw materials and agricultural goods will continue apace. Soon, at least one or two communities along the coast of Pacific Northwest will bend to the pressure of economic concerns, and allow the new export of coal.