California Senate moves to delay Oakland coal-export plant

Jonathan J. Cooper, Associated Press

Democrats in the California Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would delay a proposed export facility in Oakland to ship coal to Asia, a project that's drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists.

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 24, 2016, is the former Oakland Army Base pier with the Port of Oakland in the background in Oakland, Calif. Democrats in the California Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would delay a proposed export facility in Oakland to ship coal to Asia, a project that's drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists. Senators voted to require a more rigorous environmental review of the plan. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Democrats in the California Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would delay a proposed export facility in Oakland to ship coal to Asia, a project that's drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists.

Senators voted to require a more rigorous environmental review of the plan.

The possibility of a coal shipping terminal has roiled Oakland for more than a year as environmentalists worry about the health impact of sending millions of tons of the fossil fuel annually through the city on its way to Asia.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has worked to build an image as a global leader in the fight against climate change, has remained quiet on the proposal. Brown is a former mayor of Oakland. Brown spokesman Gareth Lacey confirmed that the project's lead developer, Phil Tagami, and the governor are friends.

If the bill clears the Legislature, it would need Brown's signature to take effect.

The bill, SB1277, is part of a slate of proposals by Oakland Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock seeking to slow or derail the project in her district. Another bill, SB1279, which seeks to prohibit state transportation funding for the port, could get a Senate vote on Thursday.

Environmental studies done so far looked generically at commodity exports and did not consider the impacts of coal, Hancock said. An additional review "will help ensure any impacts of shipping coal through the port and community are analyzed and addressed," she said.

Critics of the bill say coal shouldn't be treated differently from other commodities.

The Senate's 25-13 vote fell along party lines with Republicans opposed. The measure goes next to the state Assembly, where environmental legislation has recently struggled to get past moderate Democrats who often side with business interests.

State lawmakers in Utah have approved more than $50 million in public funding to build the facility, hoping to spur investment in the state's rural counties struggling with high unemployment.

Jerry Bridges, president and CEO of the company that wants to ship the coal, says Oakland desperately needs the jobs. He also said the coal will be transported via covered rail cars and unloaded through underground chutes, greatly reducing the possibility of coal dust in the air.

The project is also contentious because Tagami had announced in 2013 that no coal would be shipped through the proposed $880 million development on the former Oakland Army Base. That changed in 2014 after he partnered with Bridges' company, which has talked with Utah about exporting coal mined in that state.

The Oakland City Council is prepared to vote later this month on whether to stop the proposal by declaring it a safety and health hazard to people living near the rail line.

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