Stop the coal trains!

(CV #49, August 2014)

The following article is from a leaflet of the Seattle Communist Study group calling on people to pack the hearings of October 17, 2013 in Tacoma and October 23 in Seattle.

Global warming is raising the seas, causing development of huge dust bowls, and record floods, mega-cyclones, and other extreme weather events are worsening. But the greenhouse gas emissions causing this, three quarters of which come from burning fossil fuels, are allowed to go on and on as if nothing is happening. In fact, after being in decline through 2008, U.S. oil production is again rising, with the largest rise ever recorded last year. Meanwhile, the dirtiest fuel of all, coal, remained the world’s fastest-growing fossil fuel even though this was below its historical averages. Indeed, global coal consumption rose 2.5% in 2012, half by the Chinese market; and it’s the operation of the unfettered market—and no way just in China—which is killing life on earth.

Thus, in order to boosts their profits, the U.S. coal capitalists are eager to ship coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana via rail cars to Pacific Northwest ports for shipment to China and Asia. But they must first win approval of Federal, State and local governmental agencies for building their proposed coal terminals. This would normally tend to be a rubber-stamp operation, but in these times of earth emergency increasing numbers of everyday people are standing up to say no coal shipments! Thus, there have been many protest actions in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Montana, including by the Lummi tribe against the proposed Cherry Point terminal north of Bellingham, 2,300 people packing the Seattle hearings to denounce the proposed project before government officials in December, 800-900 again protesting in Seattle on September 21, and more. Big Coal has responded by shelving plans to build one of the port facilities, while intensifying efforts to gain approval for the five others. This shows the need to step up the movement even more, and we add our voices to those calling for really packing the upcoming Tacoma and Seattle hearings. Turn the hearings into forums of denunciation and protest!

The U.S. coal barons argue that since Indonesian and Australian companies will supply coal to China anyway (as they already are), environmental protests in this country are fruitless because the coal burning will continue no matter what. But this “forgets” that there are growing environmental movements in these countries, while in China itself there have been many mass battles against air and water pollution in recent years, and a number of victories. Another argument the coal capitalists are using is that their projects will create jobs, e.g., 4,400 at Cherry Point for two years of construction, then 430 permanent direct jobs. In this way they’re trying to pit unemployed and precarious workers against environmentalists, and some class-collaborationist trade union officials have joined them in this dirty game.

Of course, a government that spends $trillions to bail out bankers and build the largest military and spying apparatuses in the world could certainly afford to employ these workers on, say, renewable energy projects. But that would go against the neo-liberal philosophy that both Democrats and Republicans have now ruled with for several decades. Moreover, with movements also developing against more oil pipelines, fracking, and to shut down the Canadian tar sands, this sharply raises the necessity for the environmental movement to fight around a positive program that meets both energy needs as well as the needs of workers thrown out of work when polluting operations or industries are shut down.

There must be environmental planning and direct regulations,
but with mass involvement

To the workers who have been forced into unemployment, we must add tens and eventually hundreds of millions of environmental refugees. Then we must consider that many large cities are simply going to have to be moved because of climate change, new power grids dependent on renewable energy sources will have to be built, new and cleaner mass transportation systems that go where the masses of people live and work be built, etc., etc. All this shows the necessity of fighting for planning by all levels of government in this country and globally. In times of deep crisis, like the world wars of the last century, capitalist governments out of their own interests instituted planning, and when the environmental crisis becomes catastrophic enough they’ll no doubt again resort to planning. But if this planning is left up to government bureaucrats, technocrats, corporate bosses and labor bureaucrats in secret meetings, then the interests of the majority of the people—national minorities, workers and poor—are going to be short-changed or worse.

Thus, the need to not only fight for environmental and economic planning, but to demand that the planning has the mass welfare as an independent goal. And this is only going to be possible when we have a strong working-class environmental movement demanding the people be let into all meetings in order to have their say, demanding that the masses not be made to suffer while the corporations go on with business as usual, and rallying the masses to oppose unjust plans or parts of plans, while also rallying their support for enacted measures that are truly beneficial to the environment and people. As long as the capitalist system of production remains, there will be heavy limits placed on the masses participating in overseeing government planning and regulatory policy, but the global-warming and other environmental crises are demanding this fight be waged now.

Direct regulations are a necessary aspect of planning. In the 1970s a significant section of environmentalists didn't care if they infringed on the profit-making of the polluters, and through mass pressure they were able to win numerous good but limited (and bureaucratically applied) regulations by all levels of government. But with the rise of neo-liberalism even those regulations were increasingly pared down or gutted, more and more regulatory agencies were “captured” by the environmental-wrecking corporations, and today, the agencies left usually have so few inspectors, and their fines are so measly, that they're laughable. Thus, the need for today's environmental movement to continue the fight for environmental regulations, and, moreover, regulations that guard the interests of the everyday people through mass involvement in their formulation and enforcement.

The need to oppose the market “solutions”
of establishment environmentalism

To its credit, mainstream environmentalism (as typified by Al Gore) has helped sound the alarm about global warming. But in conscious opposition to the needed direct environmental regulations and planning it has led the movement into the ditch of reliance on market measures that are now proven failures, or will become so when implemented.

First of these is “cap and trade,” a complicated system of buying and selling pollution permits that is the centerpiece of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Although the United States never ratified this treaty, the much of the world that has has failed to meet the treaty's modest greenhouse gas emissions goals. Moreover, “cap and trade” has often made the situation worse. Just one example is that in order for the polluters to gain carbon “offsets,” they've been responsible for destroying rainforests and drying out peat lands in order to plant palm oil and sugar cane plantations for production of ethanol. But peat lands are natural carbon sinks, and when they're dried out to meet the new market demand they emit spectacular amounts of carbon dioxide. It's largely for this reason that Indonesia is now the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.

Another very complicated market “solution” is the carbon tax, which has already been enacted in British Columbia and some countries, and which is being heavily pushed by leading establishment environmentalists in this country. But despite reimbursements, as in B.C., it's a regressive tax that the energy corporations and polluters will pass on to their customers, while the working people suffer from it. Thus, it will tend to make environmentalism hated among substantial sections of the masses, while failing to accomplish environmental goals. (For fuller explanations of the “cap and trade” and carbon tax fiascos see and

We can stop the coal trains!

The fact that the coal companies are trying to pit workers against the environmental movement, the fate of regulations and planning in the past century and the need to fight for mass involvement in regulating and planning, and the fact that establishment environmentalism has followed neo-liberal politics into vainly seeking market solutions to the problem of carbon emissions all show that the class struggle and the environmental movement are linked. From the side of the working people and defending the environment we therefore think building up the trend of working-class environmentalism is necessary.

Continued burning of fossil fuels isn't the only cause of global warming, and carbon emissions aren't the only environmental problem. But a victory in the battle to stop coal shipments from the Northwest will be an important milestone for the environmental movement here and globally. And we think the coal trains can indeed be stopped.

Seattle Communist Study Group

October 14, 2013

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Last changed on August 19, 2014.